If you want to know why ANC policy won’t change dramatically whoever wins in Polokwane, take a look at the front page of one of our daily business newspapers on Tuesday morning, which features a photo of Jacob Zuma, Tokyo Sexwale and Zwelinzima Vavi at a meeting at Wits University.

All three are laughing and look for all the world like comrades in arms — which, to an extent, they are because Sexwale seems to have attended the meeting to signal his support for Zuma’s bid for the ANC presidency.

Why is all this of any interest?

To answer this, we need to go back to March this year, when Vavi gave an interview to the Mail & Guardian. He insisted that Cosatu would ensure that ANC policy changed radically to reflect the concerns of workers and the poor. Cosatu, he said, would “flood” the ANC with new members to ensure this. And, most importantly for our purposes, the type of person who occupied high ANC office needed to change.

Vavi said that the ANC national executive committee is not representative because it is made up of middle- and upper-class people “and is dominated by people with business interests”. These people were responsible for the “1996 Class Project” — the current set of ANC economic policies which he and his allies believe is slanted against workers and the poor — and needed to be replaced. And so Vavi suggested that Cosatu wanted to ensure that new ANC leaders were workers or poor people.

All of which raises an obvious question: Why is Vavi so happy to welcome into the Zuma camp so obvious a representative of big business as Sexwale? And the answer, in a nutshell, is that he knows that the agenda he spelled out in March cannot succeed.

When Vavi promised to “flood” the ANC with Cosatu members he was admitting, in effect, that the policies which the union federation and its allies want do not command a majority. That judgement was correct — there is no left majority among the active members of the ANC.

The problem for Vavi — and those who want to move the ANC leftward — is that there is no evidence that Cosatu succeeded in “flooding” the ANC. An analysis of audited ANC membership figures produced by my Idasa colleague Jonathan Faull shows that most of the growth in ANC membership since the last audit came from rural areas, not from the cities and mining areas where Cosatu is strong. So, if there was no majority among active ANC members for left policies in March, there still is not one now.

This may explain why Vavi’s commitment to electing workers and poor people seems to have been forgotten. His embrace of Sexwale is not an isolated incident — if we look at the list of candidates for the top six ANC positions that Cosatu endorsed, only two, Gwede Mantashe and Kgalema Motlanthe, both former mineworkers’ leaders, are worker leaders. Neither is currently active in the unions and Motlanthe is a participant in black economic empowerment deals, making him, at least in part, precisely the sort of person who Vavi was, in March, trying to exclude. If, as seems likely, Cosatu urges its members to vote for Sexwale as national chair of the ANC, its ticket will contain two businessmen (Sexwale and Mathews Phosa) who are far more active in business than the two unionist nominees are in the labour movement!

Cosatu, has, therefore, backed a very different ticket to the one Vavi promised in March. It seems reasonable to assume that it has done this because it knows that, because there is no left majority among dues-paying ANC members, the ticket Vavi seemed to promise then cannot be elected. So Cosatu is going for the ticket it thinks can win — one whose profile is not that different to that of the national executive which Vavi says caused the trouble in the first place.

If the delegates who will vote in Polokwane still do not speak for a left majority, it seems obvious that Cosatu and its allies will have to compromise on more than who is on its ticket — it will have to accept that it can’t get the dramatic shift in policy that Vavi promised either. Cosatu strategists admit as much — they say they realise that the best it can hope for in current circumstances is a partial shift in policy. If further evidence is needed, Zuma’s determined campaign over the past few weeks to woo business provides it.

The photo of the three men is, therefore, a clear illustration that, while the ANC may emerge from Polokwane much changed, one thing that will not change startlingly is policy in general, and economic policy in particular.

As this blog has argued before, that does not mean Polokwane is unimportant — it may play a crucial role in shaping how we are governed. Nor does it mean that economic policy will not change at all — there is a strong sense within the ANC, among the current leadership under Thabo Mbeki as well as the Zuma camp, that the government needs to play a stronger role in the economy to fight poverty and kick-start development. That is why the current leadership has been talking about a “developmental state” for a couple of years. But the changes will be in the detail, not the general direction, because there is no majority for the radical shift that Cosatu and its allies have promised.

All of which raises an obvious question that has been bubbling under the surface — and sometimes above it — in Cosatu, the South African Communist Party and their allies since the presidential race began. If a new ANC leader will not guarantee the policies Cosatu wants, why has its leadership devoted so much effort to ensuring the election of an individual?

Cosatu is free to support whoever it wants for ANC president. It may also be right to assume that Zuma will offer a different leadership style from Mbeki’s, which may ensure that those who differ on economic policy are treated with more respect than they have been during the Mbeki era.

But the campaign to elect Zuma has come at a price to Cosatu — and one cost is that, in its zeal to back its candidate, it has ignored the programme for change which it spelled out in recent policy documents.

While Cosatu is unable to achieve a radical shift in ANC economic policy, it has developed some important proposals for change that would make the ANC more democratic — and, therefore, more open to worker concerns. Many of these changes — more internal democracy, an end to floor-crossing, changes in the electoral system — are winnable, even in an ANC where Cosatu does not have a majority, because they are not only in Cosatu’s interests but they would also help other groups in the ANC. But, rather than steer the ANC in a more democratic direction by winning these changes, it has tended to put all its eggs into the JZ basket.

Whoever wins in Polokwane, Cosatu is sure to find that the changes needed to make the ANC more like the movement Cosatu says it wants will not come automatically. It is likely to move the ANC forward only if it returns to fighting for principles, not simply for a person.


  • Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality is the study of democracy. He wrote Building Tomorrow Today, a study of the trade-union movement, and edited two studies of the South African transition.


Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality...

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