Governance Watch

Humpty Dumpty time has arrived for governing alliance


The governing alliance, led by the ANC, which has played a crucial role in South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy, is broken and the realignment of the political scene has started in earnest.

It is a case of Humpty Dumpty having fallen off the wall and no effort to put it together again will succeed – this much is clear after three high-profile alliance congresses in as many successive weeks. All the king’s proverbial horses and men were not able fix the fatal cracks that have developed over recent times.

Some very challenging times lie ahead, not only for the component parts of the tripartite alliance, the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), but also for the country as a whole.

The sociopolitical landscape of the country is undergoing fundamental changes. How constituent parts of the alliance and other political actors manage to adapt to the new environment will determine if and how they will survive.

At the end of their recent congress not even the SACP, who boasted that it is “the most stable and ideologically coherent formation within the Alliance”, looked as solid as it would have liked outsiders to believe. For one, there are divisions around the question of whether it is in the party’s best interest to continue to contest elections under the banner of the ANC.

Historical context

To understand what is happening with the alliance, it is important to understand the historical circumstances under which it came into being and the role it played during the country’s transition to democracy during the 1990s.

The raison d’état for its coming into existence, is probably best summarised by an article, dating from the early 1990s, on the website of the Nelson Mandela Foundation,

Quoted extensively in a previous article, it spells out that the alliance came into being because the parties at the time needed one another, for the sake of mutual interest and because they offered one another complementing strengths and capacities for the democratic processes involved in the transition.

Twenty years down the line circumstances have changed dramatically and interests have in some instances, especially on the economic and the labour fronts, evolved into competing mode. Ideological divides have in some instances also become too deep to be bridged by mere strategic conveniences.

It is, however, also important to understand and acknowledge that the alliance played a crucially important role in making a peaceful transition from the apartheid construct to an inclusive full democracy. And it still did not happen without some dangerous hitches, as the political violence in particularly KwaZulu-Natal during the early 1990s testifies to.

As South Africa is moving into the next transition to a political landscape of a multitude of role-players, rather than one dominated by one big player (the tripartite alliance), and the coalition-type governments its constitution was designed for, the danger of violence is again surfacing.

In provinces like, again, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo we have already seen political murders and violence returning. At the moment the fracturing of the labour movement and COSATU in particular has also already seen some violence, in especially the mining sector, and played a role in the Marikana tragedy.

Despite all the talk about uniting the trade union movement, the door was closed on dissenters at the COSATU congress. The prospect of a rival federation being established has thus increased and the battle for members that proved so destructive in the mining sector looms large.

Adapting to the change

How the alliance and its members, as the present holders of power, adapt to and manage the inevitable change is going to be crucially important, not only for their own survival, but for the country as an orderly democracy and thriving economy.

In some ways the alliance, and the ANC in particular, is faced with a choice very similar to one the governing National Party faced at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s.

The president at the time, F.W. de Klerk, confronted his leadership corps with the choice of: “We must decide to fight the inevitable coming revolution or attempt to manage it.”

The choice of following the latter approach was as important to facilitate the peaceful transition to democracy as the subsequent formation of the tripartite alliance as negotiations progressed.

At the moment other echoes from the past are also present, especially from the ranks of the SACP that is doing its utmost to turn the ‘capitalist system’ into an enemy of the people and a threat to transformation. Ironically, there was a time during the apartheid days that communism was the big bogeyman that had to ensure a unified front.

In the same vein, there was a resurfacing at the COSATU congress of attempts to tarnish opponents as agents of capitalist forces, and of America in particular, as was the case with the Public Protector after her report on Nkandla.

Echoing a refrain often present on international extreme socialist websites and other platforms, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini accused the US of funding plans to bring about regime change in South Africa.

"America is not God. An evil system can also be defeated. Be very careful about organisations from America who are offering funding. There is no free lunch. If somebody gives you money, they want something back from you,” he said.

There were also ominous implications in threats from some quarters when a delegate from one of the dissenting union declared: “What the working class cannot win on the table, they will win in the streets … whether we are ready or not.”


The ANC itself realises that the fracturing that is taking place at the moment will impact considerably on its hold on power.

At the COSATU congress ANC chairperson and speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, said: “United we will confront any threat posed by counterrevolutionary forces, divided we shall fall in one heap like a house of cards.”

For now it does not seem as if the ANC, or the alliance for that matter, has made its peace with the inevitability of the process of political realignment as South Africa has developed to a new post-liberation reality of competing interests in a very diverse society.

What is urgently needed, is a government positioning itself on neutral ground to mediate between those competing interests. If it sides with one faction on the labour front for instance, another faction might see “taking to the streets” as their only option – the stuff that revolutions are made off.

Some very deep fundamental and strategic thinking about how this process can and should be managed is called for.

Also read: ANC-alliance unity has become a pipe dream

by Piet Coetzer

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