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Of the irrelevance of the Tripartite Alliance in the current political landscape

In the 1994 ANC conference document titled From Resistance to Reconstruction: Tasks of the ANC in the New Epoch of the Democratic Transformation Unmandated Reflections, fascinating predictions about the ANC are made. Thabo Mbeki then spoke of the forces that would seek:

“… to destroy the ANC from within … to create contradictions and conflict between the ANC and other formations in the democratic movement. The offensive against the ANC will concentrate on a number of issues, among others: splitting the organisation and fomenting an internal struggle on the basis that the ANC is made up of three component parts (in government, in parliament and at the grassroots) the ANC in government will be portrayed as having betrayed the interests of the masses, the ANC in parliament, which will present itself as the “revolutionary watchdog” over the treacherous ANC in the executive, and the ANC outside government, which will be projected as the true representative of the soul of the movement with a historic task to be the “revolution watchdogs”; splitting the ANC around the issue of leadership, with various comrades within the movement being set up against one another on the basis that they represent different competing tendencies within the movement.”

Mbeki was speaking of external forces outside the ANC which would seek to undermine the formation of the Tripartite Alliance and destroy it. Ironically, fourteen years later, these forces proved to be internal and residing within members of the Tripartite Alliance. Perhaps in hindsight Mbeki, by making such prediction, was providing the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) with ammunition to use in entrenching their dominance within the structures of the ANC.

As he predicted, members of the SACP and Cosatu formed themselves into an organised faction within the ANC and projected themselves as pursuing the cause of the poor, while the ANC he led was projected as “inclined to over-compromise with the forces of bourgeois reformism”.

Mbeki said these external forces would encourage “Cosatu to exploit the fact of the democratic transition and the place of the ANC in government to interpret this to mean that the ANC has an obligation to “its electorate”, namely the African working class, to support it in all its demands or face denunciation as a traitor; on these bases, to encourage the launching of a major and sustained mass campaign, which, while addressing various legitimate worker demands would, at the same time, pose the spectre of ungovernability; and otherwise, encouraging the unions to be suspicious of the intentions of the “ANC in government” on the basis that the latter is likely to act in a manner intended to appease the domestic and international business world and multilateral financial institutions.”

Cosatu under the leadership of Zwenzima Vavi has indeed attempted to hold the government and the country to ransom; not to address legitimate worker demands but rather to advance an opportunistic political agenda in favour of the populist in the ANC, Jacob Zuma; and attempt to subvert justice in undermining the judicial institutions and shield him from criminal prosecution. Cosatu did in fact threat to plunge the country into anarchy and render the government ungovernable. There may be a grain of truth in the public assertions that Mbeki was the cause of his own downfall. It was his intellectual insight on the probable future that was used to counter and topple him.

The SACP and Cosatu have indicated their unwavering desire to be key players in policy direction of government; and have muscled their influence through the structures of the ANC and ensuring that populist leader, perhaps sympathetic to their cause, is ascended to the apex of power. Instead of fomenting discord and disunity within the ANC; threatening the continued existence of this political movement of the Mandelas, Tambos, Sisulus and Luthulis, and the foundation upon which it was formed into a dominant liberation movement; SACP and Cosatu should pursue their political aspiration independently from the ANC.

The Tripartite Alliance has outlived its usefulness. Its dominance, which necessitated the triumphant victory in the liberation of masses from the shackles of apartheid, is proving more and more irrelevant in the current political dispensation. The dominance of members of the SACP and Cosatu in the structures of the ANC is more destructive and unhelpful for the ANC.

SACP has recently been advancing change in economic policies (including monetary policy) and the reform of the National Treasury. It appears that the SACP is confident in the soundness of the policies they seek to entrench in government; and in the same vain it would not be unfair of us to expect such confidence in them as a party able to contest elections solo. If indeed the SACP is resolute in its belief that their suggested economic policies are in the best interest of the country, and pale current policies into irrelevance, then they should have balls to go it alone and transform themselves from irritating cheerleaders to key players in the political arena.

Cosatu has also been projecting itself as the champion of workers’ rights, but its recent meddling in the political and judicial processes is in stark contrast to its goals. The majority of Cosatu members are members of the ANC; and the ANC would not be wounded in any manner at the polls if Cosatu began to perform on its mandate as a trade union movement and left politics to political parties. Cosatu has been able to make policy proposals through NEDLAC, therefore withdrawing from active politics would not compromise its influence on issues directly related to legitimate concerns of workers.

It is clear that leaders of Cosatu use their positions of influence to advance their own political aspirations. Most notable are the president Kgalema Motlanthe who is a trade unionist, the secretary general of the ANC Gwede Mathashe, the outgoing premier of Gauteng Mbhazima Shilowa and the businessman and ANC NEC member Cyril Ramaphosa. Leadership within Cosatu is unfortunately the easiest pathway to higher office in government and has nothing specific to legitimate concerns of exploited workers.

Capitalists and communists cannot live in harmony given their opposing and unreconciling ideologies. Having a secretary general of the ANC who is national chairman of the SACP is a cause for political implosion amidst mounting and ever present pressure from domestic and international capital for commitments to capitalist-friendly policies. The political landscape requires of the SACP and Cosatu to fundamentally review their relationship with the ANC in order to provide fertile ground for their recent revolutionary posturings, unhindered by interference of opposing forces, and able to make their own strategic choices.

The secretary general of the SACP Blade Nzimande, in 1997 said, “It is our belief that a break in the Alliance at this point in time would unleash anti-democratic and reactionary forces … [it would] be tantamount to handing our victory back to the apartheid and neo-apartheid forces. It is for this reason that [the SACP] does not believe in the ultra-left approach of thinking that the only way to strengthen socialist and working class forces in our country is for the SACP and Cosatu to break away from the ANC.”

There can be no excuse in 2008 to use the nonsensical excuse of seeing this dissolution of the Tripartite Alliance as handing over victory back to the apartheid and neo-apartheid forces. The open admission of their irrelevance in the greater scheme of politics would be much more honourable than hiding behind the alliance in a desperate attempt to sustain a stale ideology, patronage and perpetuation of careerism.

Talk of a breakaway from the ANC by Mbeki loyalists bodes well for our democracy and the dissolution of the alliance would be a test of the dominance of the ANC post the liberation euphoria. The electorate is hungry for choice!


  • Sentletse Diakanyo

    Sentletse Diakanyo's blogs may contain views on any subject which may upset sensitive readers. Parental guidance is strongly advised.