Zwelinzima Vavi’s suspension from Cosatu and the ANC/SACP/Num decision not to attend the Marikana commemoration, both on Friday last week, are, to my mind, indicative of a significant retreat of ANC hegemony.

Hegemony’,  as I imbibed the concept from probably slightly fevered readings of Antonio Gramsci’s sublime Prison Notebooks while I was a student activist (and from endless discussions in those semi-mythological ‘smoke filled rooms’) has proved, for me personally, a useful and adaptable tool for conceiving of the ebb and flow of political power.

The concept comes from the Greek word ἡγεμονία (look at me … I can cut-and-paste from Wikipedia) which means both ‘rule’ and ‘leadership’ but especially implied and indirect power or rule.

Hegemony (in my own lexicon) is used to describe the myriad ways in which the dominant group extends its direct power (let’s say, for argument’s sake, that direct power is that exercised through party discipline, or through the state, especially apparatuses of implicit or actual coercion). The extension of the reach of the dominant group beyond the immediate terrain that it obviously controls and into the middle ground or the rest of society (usually conceived of as civil society) is what I think of as hegemony. It is direct power extended as influence and leadership and as a result of occupying the high ground and by in some way representing the national as opposed to sectional interests and, ultimately, effective through persuasion rather than control – forgive all the awkward italicising.

The ANC that won to power in South Africa during the end of the 80’s and early 90’s was, to my mind, the exemplary example of the exercise of hegemony. The only power available to the ANC during this period was so called  ‘soft power that derived from its occupation of the moral high-ground and came about as a result of its (the ANC’s) careful building of broad fronts and tighter, more disciplined formations, like the ANC/SACP/Cosatu alliance itself.

This is the context in which I assess both Vavi’s suspension from Cosatu and the fact that the Marikana commemoration appears to have been a ‘no-go area’ for the Ruling Alliance. Obviously both news items can be understood as important for other reasons, but this is the prism through which I have chosen to view them.

(Note: ‘retreating power or hegemony” is not the same as having  ‘lost power or hegemony’. I am not saying in raising the points below that the ANC has lost its ability to ‘influence’ and ‘lead’ … rather I am saying that there are signs that it is significantly weakened in this regard. Not explored in this article is the consequences – which I believe are extremely serious and threatening – of any such potential loss of ANC hegemony. I have previously discussed this in an article entitled Beware the thing that might pick up power lying in the street and I have made similar points in Zuma’s brittle grip tightens.)

Cosatu suspends Vavi – and the Ruling Alliance shudders

Zwelinzima Vavi, suspended after a special meeting of Cosatu’s central executive committee on Wednesday last week, has indicated that he will challenge the decision in court.  During his press conference on Friday announcing this, Vavi released a document containing what purports to be a series of intelligence reports claiming that he (Vavi) is part of a US ‘soft-power’ plot to undermine Cosatu and the ANC.

Vavi’s strategy, and that of his supporters, appears to be to mobilise ordinary workers, notably in the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) as well as in those branches, regions and local areas of otherwise anti-Vavi unions where Vavi remains popular with the rank and file – including, for example, the Kokstad region of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu).  The ‘fight back’ strategy will culminate in a special Numsa congress to be held in December.

So what?

Vavi’s refusal to accept his suspension and his publically announcing that he will contest in court the Cosatu CEC decision suspending him is more serious than it first appears – and may well lead to his expulsion. (To get a sense of why this may be the case, here is what Gwede Mantashe, ANC secretary general, said of Vavi’s decision to challenge his suspension: “This is unprecedented. It is the worst case of organisational ill-discipline. If the ANC takes me through a disciplinary process, the worst thing I can ever do is to go out and attack the ANC. That is unheard of” – Sunday Times.)

The so-called ‘intelligence document’ that Vavi released on Friday (available as a pdf at the Mail and Guardian website here) appears to be a clumsy attempt to discredit Vavi by linking him (and various other Zuma opponents) to comical ‘imperialist plots’ to spread coups and chaos in Africa. The contents of the document are not worthy of consideration. However, if it is true, as Vavi claims, that his opponents in Cosatu and the ANC distributed the document, it is legitimate to consider the possibility that it was produced in a ‘dirty tricks’ department somewhere within the state security apparatus and/or somewhere close to the leadership of the ruling party.

The outstanding question is whether Vavi’s suspension or expulsion could lead to a defection of Numsa and other unions or parts of unions from Cosatu. The labour environment could be catastrophically impacted upon by this kind of collapse of Cosatu – especially if Numsa, already the largest, best organised and, perhaps, most militant Cosatu union, decides to contest with other Cosatu unions (especially Num) for membership.

The difficulty in making an assessment of whether Numsa could split from Cosatu is rooted in the fact that there is no template for the consequences of the factional driven axing of such a senior, respected and popular alliance leader such as is Vavi.

Up until now it was always a good bet that while ‘left’ and other ‘militant’ factions of the Alliance might fight against various positions and policies with which they disagree, the benefits of being within the Alliance always outweighed the loss of access to the policy-making/leadership-election processes that would go along with being outside the Alliance.  However, Vavi represents, more than any other single individual, the ‘left’ critique of ANC/government corruption (particularly allegations around Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence) and of government economic policy (particularly the National Development Plan) and it is distinctly possible that ‘left’ factions of Cosatu could conclude that the space for them to operate within the alliance would be closed down if Vavi is forced out.

Marikana – ANC and Num refuse to participate in commemorations

The African National Congress, the SACP and the National Union of Mineworkers boycotted the first anniversary commemoration of the Marikana killings, saying the event was “hijacked” (Num), that Amcu was  “a vigilante grouping” (SACP, quoted in Business Day 16.08.13) and that the “commemoration is organised by an illegitimate team called ‘Marikana support group’” (ANC, quoted in Business Day 16.08.13).

Thousands gathered on Friday at the hillside in Marikana where 34 mineworkers were shot a year earlier. During the commemoration, Lonmin CEO Ben Magara “apologised for last year’s deaths, the first and only company or government official to do so” – Business Day 19.08.13.  Ben Magara said at the commemoration: “I heard about your request to employ a relative of each of the deceased. I heard about the request for R12,500. I am here today to say: let us sit down and talk”. Joseph Mathunjwa, president of Amcu said this apology “was overwhelming” … he is the only person who came and gave an apology and he was not (at the time of the massacre) even part of the management … not even government has done that …his gestures show that he is a man who is willing to engage” – Business Day 19.08.13.

During the commemoration Dali Mpofu, legal representative of injured and arrested miners at the Farlam Commission, acted as the master of ceremonies, Julius Malema was among the speakers and Agang SA leader, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, “deposed” PAC leader Letlapa Mphahlele, NFP leader Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi, IFP president Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota, African People’s Convention leader Themba Godi, EFF leaders Kenny Kunene and Floyd Shivambu and UDM leader Bantu Holomisa also attended (City Press).

So what?

The complete retreat of the ANC and its allies (the SACP and Cosatu) in Marikana represents a highly significant loss of political terrain. The commemoration gathering was widely accepted and legitimate, Lonmin was represented as was a broad cross-section of the Nkaneng community as well as church, political and worker organisations. The fact that this was a ‘no-go area’ for the ANC and its allies is, in my opinion, the most significant evidence of loss of ANC hegemony since the 1994 election. The political loss for the ANC is reproduced throughout the platinum sector and tracks the relative gain of Amcu and the losses of Num. The opposition political parties are hovering around the platinum sector hoping to pick up the votes the ANC loses … but it is not yet evident which parties, if any, will benefit from the ANC’s apparent loss of support and legitimacy amongst platinum mineworkers. However, the existence of ‘no-go areas’ in national election campaigns is a recipe for violence.

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