South Africa strike a political gambit ahead of elective conference: Analysts

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Tuesday, 6 September 2022 11:59

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, of the African National Congress (ANC), speaks during the launch of an election manifesto at Church square in Pretoria, South Africa, September 27, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Mounting economic woes have prompted South Africa’s largest labour-union federation to mobilise against the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The two sides are not expected to turn into political foes, according to analysts, who believe the labour movement is seeking political gains.

A nationwide strike and protests staged by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) against the ANC-led government last month signifies that the trade union has “lost confidence in the new dawn”, the honeymoon period after Cyril Ramaphosa was elected the ANC president in 2017, says Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst.

The protests on 24 August were driven by a demand that decision-makers take drastic action to avoid economic collapse and that the government deal “with the scourge of corruption” in the public procurement system.

“The message to the ANC is, ‘Hear us. You don’t have a blank cheque from COSATU’,” says Mathekga.

Five years after COSATU threw its weight behind Ramaphosa, who rose to power on a ticket of economic renewal and rooting out corruption, South Africa is facing a cost-of-living crisis while maladministration remains rampant.

The country recorded an official unemployment rate of 33.9% in the second quarter of 2022, while annual consumer price inflation rose to 7.8% in July, up from 7.4% in June. This has added pressure on workers dealing with “wage stagnation and punishing debt”, says COSATU.

More ‘cautious’ COSATU

Back in 2007, COSATU and the South African Communist Party’s (SACP) were instrumental in helping Jacob Zuma win the contest for the ANC presidency against Thabo Mbeki during the party’s annual conference, which was held in Polokwane, Limpopo.

COSATU emerged from a crisis under Zuma where they overexposed themselves to the problems of the ANC

Dubbed the ‘coalition of the wounded’, in reference to Mbeki keeping the ANC’s left-leaning allies at arms’ length during his tenure, the grassroots organisational muscle of COSATU and the SACP helped propel Zuma to the top.

Zuma’s economic cluster ministries were later filled by senior SACP and COSATU leaders. Ramaphosa’s incumbent finance minister, Enoch Godongwana, comes from the trade union movement.

“COSATU emerged from a crisis under Zuma where they overexposed themselves to the problems of the ANC,” Mathekga says, but “the COSATU we have today is cautious”.

COSATU remains embittered by a Constitutional Court judgement delivered earlier this year that invalidated the implementation of the last leg of a three-year wage agreement concluded in 2018 between the state and workers.

The union considers the lack of full implementation of the 2018 wage agreement “a blatant attempt to erode workers’ hard-won rights”.

Tripartite alliance campaigning

COSATU, whose affiliates dominate the public sector through different domains, including health and education, is in a tripartite alliance with the ANC and the SACP. Constituents of COSATU and the SACP, which chose to stay out of the ANC elective conference politics, are card-carrying members of the ruling party.

In December 2022, the ANC is scheduled to host an elective conference for its top-six party positions; namely, president, deputy president, chairperson, treasurer, general secretary, and deputy general secretary.

They [COSATU] play strategically to try to optimise their influence

“These are the times for the tripartite alliance members to do their campaigning” ahead of the elective congress, says Susan Booysen, professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

COSATU, much like the SACP, bargains to have more negotiating power before the election by threatening to withdraw support and abstain from campaigning for the ANC to ensure favourable tweaks in policies and to secure senior positions in government, according to Booysen.

“They [COSATU] play strategically to try to optimise their influence,” says Booysen.

Conditional support

Last month’s protests show that COSATU’s support for the ANC “was always conditional – it should be conditional”, Mathekga says.

“It [COSATU’s support] should be to the extent that the president provides a policy framework and leads … in a way that people do not lose jobs. When it comes to public procurement, value … [should be] attained in multiplying jobs instead of making a few people millionaires,” the analyst says.

“Whatever their sins, COSATU’s leaders are seldom implicated in corruption. Our trade union leaders are relatively unblemished when it comes to their integrity.

“Look at the current administration, at the president himself – the cabinet is under siege,” Mathekga says. “All these things – [corruption scandals and economic stagnation] – point to the ANC not being able to get things right.”

COSATU, ANC will remain allies

However, COSATU’s best bet is still the ANC, says Mathekga. “Other parties are still to find themselves. The only party that has a good institutional infrastructure through which COSATU can influence policies is the ANC.”

“When the ANC is at its weakest, as is the case now, COSATU will bargain more,” says Mathekga. “The end goal is not withdrawing from the alliance – that would be childish – it is to tighten the terms of engagement.

“They [COSATU] are a compassionate critic of the ANC. Their legitimacy with workers also depends on them being able to stand up to the ANC,” Mathekga says.

It [endorsement] comes with symbolical value. It is a great thing to say, ‘The tripartite alliance backs me’

“COSATU is never going to come out and support the DA [Democratic Alliance] – they don’t agree with the policies of the DA.”

‘Shadow of its former self’

Booysen, from the University of the Witwatersrand, says: “COSATU has been floundering – they haven’t got that pull in society anymore.”

Declining union membership and subscriptions, rising unemployment, and the advent of precarious work have eroded power on the ground for COSATU, which “is a shadow of its former self”, according to Booysen.

However, the ANC would still hope for COSATU to remain on its side.

An endorsement of Ramaphosa by COSATU in the run-up to the ANC’s December elective conference “can boost his image if they actively campaign for him [again]”, says Booysen.

“It would be beneficial. It [endorsement] comes with symbolical value. It is a great thing to say, ‘The tripartite alliance backs me’.”

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