Business Day: Forcing changes from within

Forcing changes from within

COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is wrong to label the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) furious response to his move to cement relations with civil society groups as “paranoid”.

Published: 2010/11/04 07:30:49 AM

COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is wrong to label the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) furious response to his move to cement relations with civil society groups as “paranoid”.

Paranoia is an irrational fear of a threat that does not exist, whereas the prospect of SA’s main federation of trade unions — the biggest and best-organised grouping in civil society — cosying up to a range of nongovernmental organisations that focus on the parts of society worst affected by the government’s service delivery failures is potentially a very real threat to the ruling party.

That said, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe’s talk of a move to form a new political party in opposition to the ANC with a view to attempting to effect “regime change” is way over the top. There is no doubt that Cosatu is repositioning itself within the tripartite alliance with the aim of keeping its options open, a wise move given the signs of spreading discontent over ANC corruption and misgovernance.

But the union umbrella has no intention of breaking with the ANC while they believe they still have a shot at gaining dominance over it within the alliance. There are too many advantages to being part of the establishment to go into political opposition and force their members to choose between the organisation they believe best represents their interests, and the party many still see as their liberator from oppression.

Cosatu triumphed over its nationalist-inclined foes during the ANC’s recent national general council, and within days one of its strongest affiliates, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), was vowing that the left wing of the alliance would “come in numbers” to take control of the party at its 2012 elective conference. Less than a month later, former Sadtu general secretary Thulas Nxesi has been appointed deputy minister of rural development and land reform.

Mr Vavi was threatened with disciplinary action for criticising the ANC’s failure to investigate allegations of corruption against then communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda, yet a couple of months later it is Gen Nyanda who is out of a job. With the obvious exception of economic policy, Cosatu’s muscle-flexing is getting results, unlike the ANC rebels who were left with little option but to form the Congress of the People. It’s no secret how that worked out.

Cosatu’s bid to find common ground with other organs of civil society is doubly shrewd given that its claim to represent the poor has always had a hollow ring. Organisations like the Treatment Action Campaign, the Landless People’s Movement and Abahlali baseMjondolo, representing shack dwellers, have often found themselves pitted against the ANC, and by extension its alliance partners. Cosatu is clearly looking to change that by focusing on issues where they have similar concerns, most of which concern failures in service delivery, and steering well away from those where their interests diverge, such as job creation.

The ANC’s failure to deliver on its promises, and concern over its respect for the constitution and independent institutions, has served to revive civil society. The recent formation of the nonpartisan Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution included prominent members of the ANC, and Cosatu has supported rights-based pressure groups such as Section 27, Equal Education and the Save our SABC coalition.

This points to an organisation that is genuinely concerned about improving service delivery and upholding people’s rights, not one that is hellbent on becoming SA’s version of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change, as claimed by Mr Mantashe. But that could be a handy Plan B.