Alliances are usually structured by different organisations that are motivated by a common purpose to achieve a shared objective. For such an arrangement to be sustainable, it must also be mutually re-enforcing in order to serve their different interests. It was therefore logical for the labour movement to collaborate with the ANC for the purpose of bringing down the oppressive apartheid government. The alliance was mutually re-enforcing because the ANC acknowledged the organisational power of the labour movement that would be so critical in ensuring that it mobilised the voting numbers that have sustained it in power to date. The labour movement, on the other hand, wanted to ensure that the ANC would implement policies and legislation that favoured the interests of their members. The labour relations legislation that was enacted post 1994 is a good example.
This arrangement faced the first critical test when the ANC took power as the ruling party in government and assumed the responsibility of having to uphold our new constitutional values that underpin our democracy and serve the interests of all the people of South Africa. In this new role, the ANC had to pay attention to many other competing demands from a variety of other social interest groups that it could not ignore in preference to their tripartite alliance partners. Some of these interests groups, such as the business community, foreign lenders and international financial institutions, would exert a substantial influence on the ANC’s policy direction post-1994.
The resilience and strength of the alliance would necessarily require the ANC to manage a very fine balancing act to placate and re-assure the other partners that their interests will not be compromised by future ANC policy direction. But this expectation by the labour movement was naïve and unrealistic. The ANC in government was going to be obliged, on an ongoing basis, to make a very careful and informed assessment of the global dynamics that could impact negatively on the country’s growth prospects and take appropriate action. The unilateral adoption of the Gear macroeconomic strategy under Thabo Mbeki was a direct execution of this overriding responsibility.
The questions that need to be asked are: How long can the alliance hold firm? Should the ANC invest time and effort in sustaining the alliance and compromising its mandate and ability to rule?
By all evaluation and analysis, the first term of the current administration has been characterised by policy vacillation and incoherence in vital sectors of the government policy terrain. The National Development Plan (NDP) has now been adopted as the government’s flagship document and strategy and it has been used as a basis for the compilation of the Medium Term Strategic Framework for the current five-year cycle. And yet, the NDP is facing furious opposition from Numsa, a key member of Cosatu, on the basis that it is neo-liberal strategy that will erode the interests of the workers. Essentially, Numsa argues that the ANC has abandoned its historical position as a party that upholds the interests of the workers and the poor. This conflict of interest clearly demonstrates that the alliance would sooner or later face an existential threat.
The internal factional conflicts within Cosatu, which have led to the expulsion of Numsa, reflect the ideological conflicts with the ANC on key policy positions. It is a natural outcome of the new reality by the ANC of being the party in power and dealing with the socioeconomic dynamics of the new South Africa. Ultimately what this means is that it is the ANC that must govern and not the alliance!
The challenge for the ANC is whether it should stitch together something that was clearly going to unravel and collapse, or invest more time and effort in demonstrating to South Africans and the world that they take full ownership of the policy development responsibility and that they are in charge. This will require a fundamental change in attitude that can demonstrate the ANC will ensure that the best people are deployed at state enterprises and public services to ensure an efficient public service system. The dysfunction that characterises the education and health system, local government and state enterprises needs to be reversed decisively to halt the decline in the once proud ANC brand.
Another major effort must be to demonstrate, in a practical way, a change in the way the ANC relates to chapter nine institutions under the Constitution. The ANC is perceived to be deliberately undermining these institutions to suit conflicting factional interests in the party. A serious and meaningful change in attitude is necessary to maintain voter support in the face of a left-leaning attack underpinned by Numsa and the EFF. And, it must also demonstrate responsible leadership as the majority party in Parliament and restore its integrity.