This war won’t be won from our air-conditioned offices but in the branches and structures of the ANC, just as it happened in the build-up to Polokwane. – Zwelenzima Vavi at a press conference yesterday (30/11/2009)

It’s over; Cosatu is back where it belongs.

The trade union ally fought its way into the ruling tent and finally gained admittance at the Polokwane conference of the ANC in 2007.

Cosatu has, since its formation in Durban on December 1 1985,  played the role of the prickly and critical ally of the ANC.

The organisation has consistently been on the side of the angels (in that role, anyway), acting as the stern fraternal critic of government and the ruling party on issues as diverse as Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS and corruption. After the end of legislative Apartheid in 1994 the glue that had bound Cosatu to the ANC was weakened and Cosatu became ever more strident in its criticisms – especially of cronyism.

The mythology that Cosatu constructed for itself and helped imprint on the 2007 Polokwane class project (hmm, can I patent that?) was that the ANC had been hijacked by an Mbeki led deviation with the promulgation of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution macro-economic policy in 1996 (the 1996 class project).

What Cosatu was doing in the lavish ruling tent, according to their own narrative, was saving the ANC from the 1996 class project.

Cosatu is a trade union movement. Of all possible trade union movements, Cosatu was NEVER meant to be the government. The organisation is the trickster, the Shakespearian fool and it has immeasurably strengthened our democracy by playing that role.

But a trade union movement is limited by its need to protect the interests of its members. I have argued time and time again here and here (for example) that the interests of employed workers ARE NOT identical to the interests of the nation as a whole.  Any attempt to place the interests of employed workers – especially the short-term interests – at the centre of national policy would be profoundly damaging to the South African economy and democracy.

This is not an abstraction. It’s about investment flows, the laws that structure the labour market and the costs of doing business here. Government must balance the creative greed of capital and the suffocating fear of organised labour – in a rough nutshell, so to speak.

The last thing we need is either business or organised labour running government.

Cosatu has stood steadfastly against the rising tide of cronyism and tender abuse within government. But as soon as it has become part of government the organisation pushes to entrench the short-term interests (labour brokers, forced lower interest rates) of the formally employed … and that’s in the interregnum before its leaders join the gravy train.

So instead of watching its own structures and leaders sucked into the familiar patterns of greed and corruption which seem to be the inescapable quagmire of governance in South Africa, Cosatu must find itself a base in the wilderness from which to ‘speak truth to power.’

(Note: There are questions that are begged:
  • Is it appropriate or realistic for Cosatu to conduct its battle  “in the branches and structures of the ANC, just as it happened in the build-up to Polokwane’.
  • What does this mean for the “Alliance”? Split? Drift along?
  • The SACP is obviously talking to Cosatu and coordinating with them. Where does the SACP go?
  • Whereas I do think Cosatu’s apparent exit from government into civil society presages a massive – and generally positive  – upsurge in civil society opposition, this is bad in the short-term for investment risk and, more importantly, civil society opposition is unlikely to divert these trajectories of cronyism, abuse of power and weakness at the centre.
I will try to address these in the next few weeks.)