It’s on, it’s cootchy-coo. No, it’s off, it’s divorce. Monitoring South Africa’s governing alliance is a bit like watching a low-grade soapie starring a fractious married couple.

Or more accurately, an eternally bickering ménage à trois, with two parties always ganging up on the third, but with loyalties shifting constantly. Sometimes it is the African National Congress siding with the SA Communist Party against the unionists, as it was recently with the National Development Plan (NDP), which the communists endorsed in principle.

But that was a month ago, a long time in a volatile relationship. This week the SACP shifted away from the ANC and closer to the position of the Congress of SA Trade Unions.

Now the SACP argues that the NDP needs to be looked at again because it was the result of ‘a fabricated, bland consensus’. Never mind that in December at Mangaung, all three parties passed a resolution endorsing the NDP and noting that part of its value was that it was drafted ‘conscious of the need to unite South Africans in action around a common vision and programme of change’.

Instead, the SACP now wants a ‘state planning commission’, composed of people with ‘organic’ links to the alliance, to produce a new plan. In other words, it wants to drive the ideological shape of a new plan unfettered by compromise. This has pleased the powerful mineworkers union no end, which commended the SACP on seeing the light regarding the ‘neoliberal outlook and anti working class posture’ of the NDP.

Guptagate is another example of manoeuvring between the partners, as they jockey for primacy. When the news broke that President Jacob Zuma’s pals had commandeered an air force base to land a jetload of wedding guests, thus avoiding the inconvenience of passports and customs, there was an uproar.

ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe slammed this ‘breach of national security’ and said it showed how ‘poor political judgement … can plunge the country into trouble’.

He made unexpected common cause with Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, the man whose ouster as leader the ANC previously backed because of his criticisms of the party and of Zuma. Vavi warned that the ‘real culprits’ had to be exposed not ‘scapegoats’ who could not have taken such an ‘obviously politically sensitive decision’ in what was fast becoming a ‘banana republic’.

This week the Justice ministry’s report on Guptagate was released and, as Vavi warned, it is a cover-up. The air base is not a National Key Point after all, it’s a Strategic Military Base, which falls under other legislation, so no sweat on that accord.

And certainly no one important in government did anything wrong, especially not Zuma. What happened was all simply part of a ‘negative culture of name-dropping’.

In response, the ANC as party structure, standing apart from government, quickly broke ranks with Cosatu and rejoined the fold. Mantashe now declared that people will always name drop and there really was no need for Zuma to explain his relationship with the Gupta family to the ANC.

Cosatu has remained silent, but David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch, a Cosatu initiative, said that ‘name dropping’ trivialised ‘ the doings of a family … capable of commanding extraordinary privilege based on their relationships with senior public figures, clearly including the president’.

The root of the problem was ‘starkly inappropriate relationships between senior people in public life and elements of the business community’. It would not be resolved by the ‘frankly silly proposal to make ‘name-dropping’ a disciplinary offence’.

But all these squabbles don’t divide the trio, Mantashe has confided. Echoing the language of the marriage therapists, he said: ‘If we can actually talk about it, it will actually pull us together.’

Isn’t that great for the Alliance? No need for us to call in the domestic violence unit, after all. Meanwhile, while the trio have been throwing around the household crockery, the rand hit a four-year low over concerns about labour unrest and economic vulnerability, and political inertia remains the order of the day.


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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