The Sunday Independent
15 September 2013
Will a labour party split the SA vote?
On the face of it, debate in the tripartite alliance is alive and well. Dig deeper and fractious counterevidence with much consequence for the ANC's electoral fate rattles through the portals of power.
Never in the almost 20 years of its existence have alliance partners shied away from bloody debate. It is the battle- hardened bulwark of ANC power, the frequent site since its formation in 1994 of contests that are often more important than those of inter-party electoral politics.
This status is fading away. The narrowing of the SACP's vision is history, and the siege of Cosatu is taking shape.
Could the outcome of this clash also signal the fate of the ANC five yearsplus down the line?
Forceful intra-alliance engagement has been a massive advantage for the ANC in its virtually unchallenged 20- year rule. The alliance has been a powerful symbolic forum, a united front that supported the ANC electorally.
But the alliance itself has become a victim of the era of Jacob Zuma. A leadership cult was the victor; tentative plans were all that could reinforce the Zuma message of structural change and reconnection to people.
As the state machinery spewed out more grants and policy plans, the political elites barricaded themselves against threats such as outspokenness and penetrating questions.
One step back in alliance history, there was the benchmark of the great unseating of Thabo Mbeki. Euphoria swept through court buildings into the Polokwane tents. It was the time of the "radical" developmental state. JZ was the man to ring in the people-centred shift. The SACP and Cosatu cups ran over. After years out in the Mbeki cold, they stepped into the heart of power. Or so it seemed.
Even then the cracks that were to drive the 2013 divisions were evident. At Polokwane's 2007 briefings the SACP's Blade Nzimande beamed his happiness with Zuma's articulation of new directions for the ANC; Cosatu's Zwelinzima Vavi was pleased but said Cosatu needed more.
In the next two years critical questions were parked in the "alliance summits" box. Happy alliance communiques skimmed the surface.
It was the time of power consolidation around JZ. The commanding faction plotted intra-factional power changes. The SACP Icarus was zooming in on the sun. With SACP members meshed into top government, the post- Mbeki circle was completed.
SACP membership surged as it became a finishing school for government deployment.
In this period Vavi steered Cosatu to become a voice of public reason. It was powerful – informed, courageous and connected with those doubting the ANC bandwagon but disinclined to jump ship to an opposition party.
This voice had immense electoral value for the ANC: "Denounce tenderpreneurship, corruption and public sector vultures, but, come election time, step into line and vote ANC!" Vavi's leadership of the Cosatu leg of the antitolling alliance also helped ANC-loyal citizens to effectively oppose their powerful government on contentious policy.
Dark clouds drew closer when in late 2012 the country braced itself for Zuma's re-anointment at Mangaung. Compromise prevailed in Cosatu; Vavi's head was saved.
The campaign had the pretext of the "Lula moment". In the second term, Zuma would metamorphose into an inspirational revolutionary.
The climate had changed. Vavi's zipper gravity problems were welcomed by those wanting a compliant Cosatu.
Now the Zuma-ANC, SACP and Zuma-compliant Cosatu are on a roll. With perfect access to power and another term looming, there is little space for "oppositionism".
There will be "complementary independence" informed, according to this week's alliance summit statement, by "bold, constructive and responsible" engagement.
Election 2014 will be a sensitive election, possibly the last one in the ANC's era of hyper-majorities. The ANC is battling to maintain its majority at above 60 percent. A wiser, cynical electorate recognises that a different ANC has taken over from Mandela's party.
As the ANC approaches Election 2014 one nervous eye is on the 2019 ball.
The bulk of ANC supporters remain unavailable to the DA, but a labour party could become viable, as suggested in the recent Forum for Public Dialogue survey. Almost two-thirds of the Cosatu shop stewards polled said they would vote for a labour party if it existed and had Cosatu's endorsement (68 percent said they are ANC members).
The percentage of projected support for a labour party was far higher than in the past. Hence, it becomes imperative for the ANC to maintain a hold on Cosatu and worker politics.
The DA's boast about advancing irrevocably and going on to win a majority in 2019 is distorted. Political parties hit ceilings and detours, rather than grow in linear fashion.
However, there is the spectre of a vote split three ways between the ANC, a labour party and the DA. A left-leaning labour party would be a good candidate for a coalition partnership with the ANC.
And this is the gamble that the ANC may very well be taking: try to neutralise thorns in the flesh and manufacture consensus to continue showing a united front. Or face the prospect of having to compete against former comrades in a powerful labour party.
With the somewhat subdued anti- Zuma-ANC Cosatu under siege, the "threat" of a labour opposition and a split vote superficially diminishes, while the bigger version of the threat snowballs: the growing diversity in the big church being cajoled, for the sake of access to power and pleasing those in power, to all sing one hymn only.
■ Booysen is a professor in the Graduate School of Public & Development Management at Wits University and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power.