Political Watch

Tripartite alliance still not at peace with itself

Alliance without peace
Aliance and peace.jpg

The longest summit in the history of South Africa’s ruling tripartite alliance has come and gone, leaving behind signs that it is in the process of fading into history as a political factor of any real consequence.

Called on the initiative of President Jacob Zuma in his capacity as leader of the alliance’s senior partner, the African National Congress, it was intended for serious stocktaking and consolidation as next year’s all-important municipal elections are approaching. (For a comprehensive background click here)

The value or political weight that has been attached to the alliance in recent years is reflected in the scant news coverage received by the summit, and its subsequent statement.

Since the country’s first democratic election in 1994 and the new political processes that came with it, history seems to have caught up with the alliance, established in 1990 as a “revolutionary alliance” to fulfil the goals of the liberation struggle and what was called the National Democratic Revolution.

While the goals of the alliance were clear in the run-up to the 1994 election, ensuring the maximum vote for the ANC, the dictates of being in government brought some tough challenges. For one, it called for the formulation of detailed policies on various fronts, which the very loosely structured alliance as a collective was ill equipped for.

The task was almost exclusively left to the ANC, and ideological differences soon made themselves felt. It shone through in an early statement on the website of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Among other things it read: “… we are working out a transformation programme for the Alliance, based on the RDP. These independent organisations also have separate but complementary programmes. COSATU and the SACP are also committed to the struggle for socialism.”

The ANC is naturally excluded in this statement, since as the government it had a much wider mandate to fulfil than the narrow ideological (SACP) and particular interest groups (COSATU). Almost from the word go a special ‘insider’ position for COSATU, representing a particular interest group in the economy vis-à-vis other interests, was untenable.

The hopes for a lasting central role by the alliance was further hampered by the fact that it never developed either, plus an identity or structure of its own. It was a marriage of convenience. Not even a formal document, recording the terms of the 1990 agreement, or subsequent agreements, is to be found anywhere.

From what is available, at least in the public domain, it would seem as though the alliance has less of a formal structure, rules or semblance of a formally established organisation or institution, than the local social tennis club.

While it kicked off with the Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) as a central, overarching policy document only two years after those first elections, the realities of the modern economy called for adaptations. A comprehensive macroeconomic policy was needed.

The ANC in government responded with the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, released in 1996. It attempted to accommodate the social objectives of the RDP, but broadened the focus to include goals like reducing the fiscal deficit, coming to grips with inflation, exchange rate consideration, facilitating trade and capital flows.

It was a clear swing away from pure socialism and it became increasingly more difficult to accommodate competing ideologies and interests amicably under the same alliance umbrella. Open dissent started surfacing and another two years later the battle for domination, which would eventually cost Thabo Mbeki his presidency, burst into the open.

Delivering the ANC’s message to the SACP’s 10th congress, he took leaders in the party to task for attacking GEAR as a departure from the RDP and a neo-liberal betrayal of what they regarded as the ideological base of the alliance. From thereon the disintegration of the alliance was on the cards.

In 2005, Gear was replaced by the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (ASGISA). It acknowledged the challenges of prolonged poverty, driven by unemployment, and low earnings and the jobless nature of economic growth.

ASGISA set ambitious goals, like reducing poverty by 2010, halving unemployment by 2014 from the 28% in 2004 to 14%, and also recognised that the policies up to then did not sufficiently address these issues.

As seems to have become customary when new central policy documents are launched, the alliance also had a summit in 2005, like it did in 2002, followed by a Growth and Development Summit in 2003, as economic issues increasingly dominated alliance politics.

In its statement after the 2005 summit the alliance among other things declared: “Unconstructive public attacks on each other have not helped and we have agreed to conduct our debates and air real differences, where they may occur, in ways that build unity, and enable the Alliance to provide leadership to our society in general.”

But it was already too late to preserve the appearance of unity within the alliance. The ‘revolution’ has started eating its own children and Thabo Mbeki became the first serious victim in 2007 – replaced as, first the ANC’s president, and later that of the country, by Jacob Zuma.

In his State of the Nation address to parliament in 2010, Zuma announced the New Growth Path (NPD), which in 2013 replaced ASGISA as the central policy document. It set out four broad objectives:

  • Providing overarching goals for what we want to achieve by 2030;
  • Building consensus on the key obstacles to achieving these goals and what needs to be done to overcome those obstacles;
  • Providing a shared long-term strategic framework within which more detailed planning can take place in order to advance the long-term goals set out in the NDP; and
  • Creating a basis for making choices about how best to use limited resources.

In essence it foresaw much stronger direct intervention by the state in the economy.

In the meantime the broader political scene has been undergoing dramatic changes as it became increasingly difficult to accommodate widely divergent ideologies and interests in one loosely structured organisation (the alliance) that for all intents and purposes exists only in name.

Not only was COSATU fracturing; competing organisations on the labour front were developing, and a new political movement (United Front) was coming into being to compete with the SACP on the left. The populist Economic Freedom Fighters was also making its presence felt in parliament.

At the end of the previous alliance summit in 2013 a declaration stated: “Let us unite to advance, deepen and defend a radical second phase of our democratic transition!”

This time around, the 2015 summit’s statement concluded with: “We believe that this Summit marks a turning point in the unity and cohesion of the Movement, working together in common action to realise the objectives of the National Democratic Revolution.”

To understand to what extent the alliance in the first place was a marriage of convenience, which has now become its biggest weakness, it is instructive to read an article on the website of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, dating from the early 1990s: “… the Alliance continues because of a happy coincidence of present political interests. The ANC needs the organisational skills, material support and membership of the country's largest trade union federation. Many of its best strategists and election prospects belong to the SACP and the party's reputation for militancy has given it a powerful base in the ANC's constituency.

“Cosatu needs a political organisation which can win the election for the constituent assembly and represent its interests in government.

“The SACP does not have enough popular support to be a powerful political force on its own, so it must remain in an alliance with its more powerful partners and try to get them to incorporate its political and social objectives in their agendas.”

The article concludes: “No matter what critics might wish, it is unlikely that the Alliance will fragment while its members are jointly able to mobilise the majority of South Africans behind them.”

There was, however, nothing in the latest alliance statement to suggest that anything sufficiently different happened at the 2015 summit, compared to those of 2005 or 2013, to restore peace in the alliance. Neither was there anything to suggest that it succeeded in turning the fracturing of COSATU or the wider alliance around.

The next event

All indications are that the South African political scene is presently undergoing fundamental shifts – shifts that find the ANC and its alliance at the epicentre.

The next event to watch out for is the meeting of ANC’s national general council (NGC), postponed to later this year due to chaos in the ranks of the ANC Youth and Women’s Leagues. There has been speculation by some that, like at previous NGC meetings, rebellion against the ANC leadership could again be brewing.

The realignment in South African politics has all the potential to become a very messy affair.

 The big danger is that while the ANC and its alliance keep trying to preserve a phantom organisation united around the phantom revolution it has been peddling for more than a decade, a real revolution might be brewing as more and more people realise you cannot eat ideology and its rhetorical sauce.

by Piet Coetzer

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