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I have been completely taken up with a project (now completed) that argued that the black African middle-class was our single biggest asset and the workings of the interests of that class in the world would save our politics and help our economics. Yaay!

The basic argument looked at the defection suffered by the ANC in the May elections from its most sophisticated constituency and went on to argue that things were going to turn out rosy in the end. (There are hundreds of tables and graphs and other clever financial market type number crunching that was mostly done by my brilliant colleagues …. but I will only publish a version of that when I have had a chance to chat to them and get their permission).

Not everyone bought our story, but soon you will be able to make up your own mind if our grounds for optimism (that the ANC self-corrects) have an adequate basis.

The ‘black African middle-class saves South Africa’ project (which is what we started calling as a sort of shorthand … the report is LONG so trust me that really is shorthand) has held me back from completing my promised comments about the SACP. The further we went with the ‘middle-class’ project, the more disturbed I have become about the the role the SACP played in engineering the end of Mbeki’s presidency and it’s iron protection of Zuma through the chaos he has brought upon us over the last 4 years.

So as promised I will write that out here and publish it before year end … that’s the SACP story … so 2 promises so far.

Meanwhile here is an extract of my bespoke comments (now too dated to remain bespoke) on the Numsa split (written on the trot) a week ago. My brilliant editor friend in London suggested it be titled:

South African politics: Love’s labours lost

Numsa expulsion … if you love it let it go, if you hate it pray for its demise

The central Executive Committee of Cosatu expelled the largest member of the trade union federation at an extended weekend meeting of the special Central Executive Committee (CEC). Irwin Jim, Numsa general secretary gave a 3 hour long spirited defence of Numsa and attack on those trying expelling the union – but to no avail. It has always been a foregone conclusion, but what Numsa was doing was contesting the terrain, trying to stay as long as possible to take as many members and individual with them. The strategy has probably worked and they have come out, if not smelling of roses, then not badly damaged.

So what?

Numsa’s ideological position reaches back in an unbroken line to a strong and independent left faction (referred to as Workerists) which at the formation of Cosatu in 1985 were still strongly critical of the over-close relationship with the ANC. They  believed that the ‘national liberation agenda’ of the ANC would swamp the more limited agenda of the pursuit of workers’ rights – and the more expansive pursuit of socialism – and that therefore the unions need to be wary of this ally and always fight for their independence.

As it turns out Cosatu did pretty well out of its relationship with the ANC – getting much of the labour market structured in their favour – to the point that it has done some real damage to our economy. However, the tension between the ANC and Cosatu has continued to rise. Cosatu didn’t like the National Development Plan (too pro-markets), Cosatu didn’t like e-tolling (who in Gauteng and outside The Treasury does?), Cosatu didn’t like the Treasury setting the limits of public sector wage increases, Cosatu didn’t like the youth wage subsidy, believing it to be the short end of segmentation of the labour market into more and less protected (cheaper and more expensive) workers.

And of late the ANC, at the end of its tether about the losses of revenue from the platinum and Numsa strikes, at the violence that accompanied the platinum strikes, at the damage done our investment image by strikes, at the damage done the limping infrastructure programme plagued by strikes, has finally started talking about amendments to the Labour Relations Act that would make it a lot more difficult for Cosatu to strike (make secret balloting compulsory) and make it difficult for nationally damaging strikes (like Amcu’s strike in the platinum sector) to go on indefinitely (make some form of forced independent mediation obligatory after a certain time of being on strike.)

Numsa, and Irvin Jim – and Cosatu general secretary Zwlinzima Vavi – have gradually come into more and more serious conflict with the ANC and the SACP over these policies – and the relationship has finally broken. It must be said that Vavi and Jim have also been on the side of the angels on a number of different issues as well; Corruption Watch, abuse of ministerial car allowances, various human rights issues, including the Dalai Lama visit, the Right to Know Campaign, the Treatment Action Campaign, the protection of the Public Protector, the getting of Zuma to pay back the money, the Gupta wedding, horror at the proposed done Russian nuclear deal … the list is too long, but, in general (and with one or two notable exceptions), Cosatu under Vavi and Jim have defended the defensible – unlike their erstwhile comrades in the ANC and SACP

The expulsion of Numsa, which might quickly be followed by the exit of its closest allies the South African Commercial Clothing and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu), Communication Workers Union of South Africa (Pawusa), Democratic Nurses Organisation of South Africa (Denosa), and South African Football Players Union (Safpu) will leave Cosatu much weakened and with an over preponderance of public sector unions.

Numsa – the world is its oyster

For Numsa, the world is its oyster. It has announced intention to set up forums of some form of ‘socialist alliance’ – which we must assume will evolve into a political party, perhaps testing the waters of some constituencies in Nelson Mandela Bay and Johannesburg (where it has pre-existing strong union organisation that could easily be redeployed as party structures in the 2016 municipal election.

Numsa can also now freely pursue its strategy for vertical integration into mining, processing, construction, energy, and manufacturing, including light manufacturing and food processing. Numsa sees these whole value chains of particular metals (and possible other minerals) as natural pillars through which they can exert more power over employers and employer organisations. Up until now Cosatu’s slogan of “One Industry, One Union, One Federation” has prevented Numsa realising its full ambitions (although several unions, especially Num have complained for years that Numsa has poached its members.)

Cosatu?

This leaves Cosatu with the heavyweight public sector unions as its dominant component (and, officially, remember it is still bigger, if not more vigorous, than the bits that have been expelled or might leave in sympathy with Numsa). However the public sector unions are about to embark on a do-or-die wage negotiation in the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council. Keep in mind that Numsa fought to stay in Cosatu primarily because it believed it could pull the heart of the federation with it, that in each of the unions, large and small, there were branches and sections and individuals who supported Numsa and supported Numsa’s decision to not back the ANC in the last election. Including significant parts of the public sector unions.

Strikes are a testing time – in fact, wage negotiation are a testing time – and even more so when you have on the other side of the table representatives of a state, so absolutely constrained by the fiscal ledge to which it is clinging that is unlikely to shift towards your bargaining position. The MTBF issued by Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene last month was as close as we have come to the austerity of Trevor Manuel’s first few budgets in the mid 90’s. This was the heart of the Cosatu (and South African Communist Party) attack on Mbeki’s government, with ‘the left’ arguing it was a form of Kowtowing to the Washington Consensus. ‘The left’ then and now believe the way to economic growth is by state spending as a stimulus that creates the virtuous circle. Nene’s budget was the heart of the “1996 Class Project” that Zuma and his allies supposedly defeated at Polokwane in December 2007, which takes the decidedly opposite view of growth: that the state needs to make room for investment and that government needs to create an environment maximally attractive to the same. And part of doing that is keeping borrowing and therefore spending strictly within the bounds acceptable to global capital markets.

Cosatu is now dominated by unions that are not involved in the productive economy. It’s basically the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and the burned out cinders of the likes of the National Union of Mineworkers and other bits and pieces. More than anything these unions are dependent on state spending … but from a state that seems to be all out of resources. We do not think that while Sadtu and Nehawu are ostensibly close to the Zuma faction of the ANC that this is going to take any of the sting out of the coming public sector wage round. Which trade union loves the boss enough to tell its members to back off because he is in political trouble? None that we have ever heard of. And anyway these unions all face a myriad splits, including towards Numsa … they have to show their members they can win them a decent deal.

SACP?

The SACP backed, to the hilt, with everything it had, Jacob Zuma’s rise to power at Polokwane. It did so because its main task was to stop Mbeki and the political programme he represented. Mbeki was increasingly basing ANC policy on promoting the rising black middle-classes and he was doing so at the expense of the trade unions and the SACP for whom he seemed to express ever greater public contempt – and in my opinion would eventually have moved out of the ruling alliance … essentially by collapsing it. The is no question in our minds that Mbeki was making sure that both the SACP and Cosatu had less and less power over ANC policy making. Obviously Mbeki overplayed his hand, not believing his enemies would stoop to backing Jacob Zuma for president. Well he certainly called that one wrong and the rest is history.

The SACP still sits as Zuma’s main backer. Cosatu has essentially collapsed under the pressure of trying to keep its unity and back this president at the same time. The ANC Youth League was expelled along with Julius Malema because Zuma became so tarnishing that it was impossible to stand by him … and it now (the ex-ANCYL) exists as a vigorous and challenging opposition party, the EFF.

So the SACP is sitting there in the Kraal with Jacob Zuma, defending him to the hilt on his myriad transgressions, trying to explain to the world how it (the SACP) is the true representative of the working class as the millions follow Numsa out of the alliance – and it is impossible to avoid the fact that Numsa’s most virulent criticisms are for the SACP.

The ANC

The ANC is looking particularly forlorn. They fought this split, understanding that the loss of Numsa would lead to other losses and would make the 2016 municipal election a myriad-sided fight in which the ANC was likely to get a bloody nose. The ANC still has way to fall. It got just over 62% of the vote in the national election in May this year and just under 62% in the municipal election in 2011. The trajectory is downwards (the party does worse in municipal polls) and there is much fear (if you support the ANC) and much anticipation (if you don’t) of catastrophic results for the ANC in 2016.

As it happens part of our ‘upside surprise’ scenario, is one in which the ANC, freed from the constraints of its alliance with organised labour, recognises the errors of its ways, elects a clean, reforming and effective leadership in 2017 (the National Conference), shuffles the current crew off to the safe retirement and comfortably wins the 2019 elections with a decent development plan at the helm. But this precisely requires the ANC getting a serious shock in the 2016 election. It sounds like a fantasy and probably is. But it is unavoidably apparent that the conditions are looking increasingly hostile for the ANC.

It does appear that if the ANC doesn’t do something radical and soon, it could be in serious electoral trouble. Of course it might chase the EFF and Numsa’s socialist policy in the belief that this would win the party votes. We think there are other and better options the ANC is considering but they are not on the table yet and all we can hear is the repeat of “welcome to the second, more radical phase, of the transition” – which doesn’t actually mean anything, but sounds vaguely (distinctly?) threatening to investors.

I am an independent political analyst focusing on Southern Africa and I specialise in examining political and policy risks for financial markets.

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