Constitutional Watch

Will constitution deliver as ANC-alliance fractures?

Fracturing ANC

Will the South African constitution be able to deliver what it was designed for after the break-up of the ANC-led tripartite alliance, which has governed South Africa since 1994, which came as close to being irreversible as can be this past weekend?

The process of a steady breakdown of the all-dominating political power of the African National Congress, which has been in progress for some time, probably gained substantial momentum with the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) from the ANC’s largest alliance partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Numsa, which in December last year already took a decision not to support the ANC in this year’s May general election and set itself up for the final confrontation inside Cosatu, has 350 000-plus members. It represents 15 or 16% of Cosatu’s 1.8 or 2,2 million affiliated members (depending on which source is used).

Over the past year Numsa in its battle with the Cosatu leadership, has been supported by seven other affiliated unions, representing at least a further 15% of the federation’s affiliated members.

By way of comparison the South African Communist Party (SACP), the third member of the alliance, claimed in April 2013 that its membership over the preceding five years grew by a factor five to 150 000 members.

It is not easy to translate these figures to those at the ballot box during an election, but it could be accepted that in the case of trade union membership, unlike political parties, the figures could possibly be doubled, due to spouses and family members who are not themselves union members.

Numsa, which has been pressing a militant left-wing agenda after falling out with the ANC over economic and labour policy, over the weekend again confirmed its intentions to establish a political movement next month. It will be called the "United Front" will push its socialist agenda.

Numsa’s general secretary, Irvin Jim, also said over the weekend that the expulsion of the union has dealt workers’ unity a blow. “It should mark the start of a new revolution”.

New dynamics

It is clear that the dynamics of the South African political scene are about to change dramatically. The process, in fact started way back in at least 2007 at the ANC’s national conference in Polokwane when the then President Thabo Mbeki was replaced by Mr. Jacob Zuma as ANC leader. It led to the first split from the ANC with the formation of the Congress of the People (Cope).

Then there was the establishment of the Economic Freedom Fighters in 2013, which has already changed the power dynamics in the South African parliament dramatically.

The disenchantment with the ANC is also reflected in the mounting, often violent, protests over poor service delivery.

Few things illustrated to what extent its grip on the alliance was slipping as much as Deputy-president Cyril Ramaphosa’s failed attempt to prevent the rupture in Cosatu that took place this weekend. In April the ANC had set up a task team, led by Mr Ramaphosa, in April to help the trade union federation overcome infighting – an attempt that has now failed spectacularly.

The new phase in the realignment of South African politics is bound to be a messy, often confusing process and, judged by what is happening on other fronts, at times aviolent one.

At the time of writing Cosatu has not even officially confirmed Numsa’s expulsion, which the latter is considering challenging in court while planning to go ahead with its new political front. If and when a new party to the left will be established is also still up in the air,

And, it is still uncertain what direction present Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi will take, judging by the vague signals coming from him.

It is unlikely that changes will happen overnight and at this stage scenarios can be churned out ad infinitum. The first indication of what the future of the ANC will look like is likely to start becoming clear at the nation-wide local government elections of 2016. If the indications are that the ANC is in danger of losing power in the next general election of 2019, it just might move forward Moeletsi Mbeki’s prediction of South Africa’s “Tunisia Day” for 2019 by a year or two.

Parliament and the constitution

Considering the fact that the EFF, by pulling in just over one million votes, in May captured 25 seats in the National Assembly and looking at the figures involved with in the trade union developments mentioned above, parliament could look and function dramatically different after the 2019 election.

To this can be added the fact that union members are largely urbanised, which quite likelycould make for some dramatic changes in the political control after the 2016 municipal elections.

There is a strong possibility that South Africa might be heading for coalition governments in some of its nine provinces, or even at national level – and that is to a large extent what its democratic constitution was designed for.

In an article published in December last year we wrote: “To understand what has already started to happen in the South African body politic, including the apparent breakup of the ANC as it existed in government since 1994, the proliferation of smaller (narrow-interest or ideology-based) parties and the unity strains recently experienced by the DA, one needs to understand the fundamentals of the constitution negotiated during the 1990s.”

Based on the dynamics of the proportional voting system opted for in the 1996 constitution, which globally tends to lead to coalition governments, we also wrote: “Only time will tell what the profile of politics and government structures will look like in South Africa going forward but it is clear that the forces facilitated by the fundamentals of the 1997 constitution have brought it to the brink of a phase of transition to a more nuanced dispensation of internal checks and balances.

“This transition is also unlikely to complete itself during election 2014, but a change in power relations from its results might bring more momentum to it with the real test of the constitution’s resilience coming at the time of the next election in 2019.”

The crucial question that now arises is: Will the ANC, which has over the past 20 years become used to an effective “winner takes all” dispensation by internalising power coalitions in its alliance, be willing to accept the loss of all the perks and luxuries up to now afforded the party and its hangers-on?

by Piet Coetzer

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