Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The strange politics of the tripartite alliance

Stanley Uys responds to a critique of his article from S'Thembiso Msomi of The Times.

Writing in The Times last week, S'Thembiso Msomi chides me gently for "wrongly" thinking (in these columns) that the Tripartite Alliance (ANC, Cosatu, SACP) is going to split (see article). I say gently, because Msomi is politeness itself. But there is something about the indictment that he brings against me that is puzzling.

First, he says that when Jacob Zuma was elected ANC president at Polokwane in December 2007, he (Msomi) thought "the matter was settled." Wrong. The rest of the country, I am sure, knew the matter was just beginning.

Second, Msomi says the cabinet Zuma appointed on May 10 was "fairly inclusive," because both Cosatu and the SACP leaders were given positions in it. That's it, then: deliver cushy jobs to the top rank - and behold the "inclusive" society! Besides, someone has to manage those trade unionists who (Msomi's words) are in "continuing dispute" with the government.

Also, what was the fuss about the "war of words" between Cosatu and the Zuma-led ANC over the Reserve Bank's inflation-targeting policy? And the row over Cosatu's "premature call" for Zuma to serve more than one term as ANC president? It's the name of the game, isn't it?

Next, Msomi closes in on my "prophecy" that the tripartite alliance will not survive the remaining three-and-a-half years or so of Zuma's five-year term as ANC president. It was my mistake, he says, to fail to see that all that is happening in the alliance is "current public debates" and "a continuing battle for political control between various interest groups within the ruling party and its alliance parties." Just the lads having a chat over a beer.

Relations in fact "have never been sweeter" between the ruling party and the (Cosatu) federation." Like ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe (he also moonlights as SACP chairman) telling Cosatu to mind its own business? I can see now where I went "wrong": I failed to grasp the proper definition of tripartite alliance ethics.

"What Uys and others are missing," says Msomi, "is the context within which some of the militant statements by unionists are made." He continues: "There is an elective national congress in September and, in order to be re-elected, the federation's leaders have to convince their members that they remain fearless in their advancement and defence of workers' rights. If they show any signs of softening on important issues, such as wage talks and inflation targeting, merely because their preferred political leader, Zuma, now runs the government, they run the risk of being voted out."

Cosatu, therefore, has to put on a show. Nothing it really believes in - just a show. Ethics as a kind of pop concert. Leaders must sound tough, because if they look soft, they will be voted out of those jobs they hold. Such nice, well-paid jobs.

So what I have been seeing as a vice, is in fact a virtue. It's not a disgrace, not one of the reasons why people say a plague on all politicians: it's ethics played with style.

Msomi has more thoughts. "Cosatu is well aware that its close ties to the ruling party make it vulnerable to attacks from rival unions who want to convince its members - especially in the public sector - that the federation does not put the interest of workers before all else.

"So, when medical doctors in the public sector took to the streets recently to protest against their meagre salaries, (Zwelinzima) Vavi (Cosatu secretary general) et al had to throw their weight behind the doctors' actions. Failure to do so, the federation knew, would have opened up a strategic gap for rival federations and unions to exploit. Even Zuma seems quite conscious of this.

"Though it's true that he recently urged unions to reconsider the wisdom of engaging in strikes in the current economic climate, Zuma says his government and the ANC will not stop Cosatu members from downing tools".

From this, Msomi concludes: "The tripartite alliance, it appears, will be with us for a very long time."

You see my problem, the puzzlement to which I referred in the first paragraph? Either Msomi is condoning alliance ethics at their most disgraceful; or he has written what is probably the most subtle article to emerge from an analyst's pen since the post-Mbeki alliance started to play its Great Game. The points he makes have an outer meaning (the ones I comment on), and an inner meaning, which mock the alliance game-players.

Kipling said it all. If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you...Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it/And - which is more - you'll have understood alliance ethics, my son!

1 Opinion(s):

Dachshund said...

Of course Cosatu, the ANC and business are in cahoots with each other. With our inflexible labour laws, what do you expect? Far better to organise a strike when there's a slowdown than retrench workers at enormous cost, only to have to hire them all over again when the economy/demand picks up.