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Carolyn Bassett views the South African election through the prism of the trade union movement - so important in providing the foot-soldiers for ensuring the ANC's electoral success in 1994 and again this time - and argues that labour's interests are far more likely to be further side-tracked than advanced through the current workings of the electoral process. (jbv)

vol 14 no 3

Electoral illusion: COSATU and the ANC
Carolyn Bassett

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 1, May 1999
Page 3
"S.A. Elections"



Carolyn Bassett is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Toronto's York University. She spent time in South Africa in 1996 and 1997 conducting research for her dissertation on trade unions and the transition.

Reports of the imminent demise of the ANC-SACP-COSATU Alliance, it would appear, have been greatly exaggerated. Quite the opposite seems to be the case. For the past year, the trade union federation has called on workers to vote for the ANC and highlighted achievements under ANC governance. COSATU's resources and organizational capacity are now turned towards supporting the ANC electoral campaign. The slogan for May Day 1999 will be "Workers mobilizing for a decisive ANC victory in the election."

It is a striking state of affairs, given the tensions that have strained the Alliance over the past five years. While clearly there have been gains during the period of majority rule, the expectations of workers nonetheless have been seriously disappointed and frustrated by the ANC-in-government. Only a serious commitment to the Alliance on the part of key COSATU leaders and the absence of legitimate political alternatives have kept it together. But even if the Alliance has survived its strains, there cannot possibly be the same optimism on the part of organized workers in the run-up to these elections as there was during the period before the historic 1994 elections. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that COSATU's approach to the 1999 elections is so similar to that of 1994.

COSATU's elections strategy

COSATU's support for the ANC's election bid will again go far beyond statements of support. COSATU has dedicated a number of leaders, staff and shop-stewards to the ANC's electoral bid and even pledged that all COSATU and affiliate leaders would be made available to the ANC. General Secretary Mbhazima (Sam) Shilowa has been designated to coordinate the COSATU elections strategy on a full time basis. Union staff have been deployed to support the ANC campaign on the ground, especially in Natal, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape where they will attempt to counter the strength of Inkatha, the National Party and the United Democratic Movement respectively.

Smoothing the way for COSATU to support the ANC in the elections was the recently released ANC Electoral Manifesto. COSATU's Executive "resolutely embraced" the document, claiming that it "undoubtedly maintains the historic bias of the ANC to workers and the poor," and "creates the necessary socio-economic and political conditions for increased delivery of a better life for all of our people." The Manifesto, it is worth noting, avoids mentioning by name the government's Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR) - the source of many of the ANC-COSATU tensions - although it does reiterate several of GEAR's major objectives.

COSATU's electoral strategy shares a number of other similarities with the 1994 electoral campaign. Once again, a large number of senior COSATU leaders will be leaving for Parliament. The belief that having ex-unionists in Parliament means having allies in Parliament also seems to have survived. In a February 1998 interview in the South African Labour Bulletin, Shilowa argued that, "although the ANC has the interest of workers at heart, it also represents other interests. If these other interests release people to go into government and we don't, we could find ourselves in a losing position."

Being "inside and outside the state" by placing sympathetic representatives into Parliament did not prove terribly effective during the past five years, however. There was not even a "labour caucus" established in the first Parliament, and some comrades have actually been accused of betraying the interests of workers. ANC Members of Parliament and particularly Cabinet Ministers have a formal obligation only to advancing the policies of the ANC. They have no obligation to support COSATU's program and would be constrained from doing so if the two were seen to be in conflict. Those who go to Parliament in 1999 will serve under similar conditions to those who went in 1994.

Moreover, COSATU again will lose a large swathe of its most senior and experienced leadership to Parliament, to government, and to the provincial legislatures. Therefore the loss of capacity in COSATU and the affiliates that followed the personnel drain in 1994 appears destined to recur in 1999. It bears noting that those who were "redeployed" to Parliament or to government departments after 1994 seldom returned to the union movement.

Despite the disappointments of the first five years of ANC rule, COSATU's Executive Committee states firmly in a pre-election pamphlet that "the question workers should ask themselves is - do you believe that any other political organization will deliver better or more than the ANC has done in the last five years?" So just how surprising is it that COSATU has chosen to support the ANC in so similar a manner as last time? A little recent history may help to answer this question.

Macro-economic shock

On April 27 1994, COSATU members had every reason to believe that "their" government would improve the lot of workers and their families and communities. The ANC's electoral platform (the Reconstruction and Development Programme, or RDP) had, after all, been developed in cooperation with COSATU.

Yet even early on there were clear signs that workers would not be as well served by the new government as they and their leadership had anticipated. COSATU and key affiliates objected to a number of government policy initiatives - tariff reduction, high interest rates, privatization, public sector lay-offs, the failure to make centralized bargaining compulsory. More generally, there were indications that it was to business leaders and opinion makers, not workers, that the government looked for support and legitimacy. Creating an attractive investment climate (even if also in the "interests of workers" in a capitalist context insofar as it led to jobs) trumped worker demands for democratization and redress whenever the two were judged to diverge.

Still, the most dramatic sign that COSATU's expectations would not be met was the June 1996 announcement of the government's neo-liberal strategy, GEAR, made without prior consultation with its Alliance partners. The announcement severely tested the relationship between the ANC, particularly the Cabinet, and COSATU.

At first COSATU signalled its intention to debate the economic strategy but ANC ministers quickly made it clear that GEAR was government policy and "non- negotiable." Meanwhile, a close examination of its main tenets raised serious concerns about GEAR's content as well as the process of arriving at it. Such concerns led regional activists to push COSATU's Executive Committee to publicly oppose large sections of the program. By November 1996, things seemed to point towards the possibility of a decisive rupture.

In an effort to try to reassert some influence over ANC policy, yet avoid an open rift, the COSATU Executive produced a Draft Programme for the Alliance that criticized both content and process in the development of GEAR. The Draft Programme proposed a new accord to bind Alliance members to a common agenda. The substance of that agenda, as suggested by COSATU, centred on state provision of basic goods and services, social transfers, and land distribution that would also create jobs, raise income (including the social wage) and redistribute wealth. More extensive state regulation of the private sector would also translate into job creation and income distribution, it was argued.

A COSATU-SACP meeting in December 1996 agreed that major policies had to be made or at least debated within Alliance structures rather than solely in the Cabinet. On this basis, the ANC was brought into a series of discussions that culminated in an Alliance Summit in August 1997.

The Summit and after

Of course, there were potential benefits in meeting to discuss policy and process with other Alliance partners for the ANC as well. It was an opportunity to remind the SACP and COSATU of the importance of smoothing over differences in the run-up to the COSATU Congress, the ANC Conference and the 1999 elections. The ANC leadership did not want the party's commitment to the GEAR program to be debated extensively on the floor of the ANC Conference, nor to come to a vote, if that was likely to lead to an irreconcilable rift. Some within the ANC leadership also saw the meeting as an good chance to "educate" COSATU and SACP critics on the merits of GEAR.

It was clear, in any case, that by the time the ANC, SACP and COSATU delegates met in late August 1997 the COSATU leadership itself felt a stronger commitment to the Alliance than it did in pushing a new policy agenda in the ANC. In fact, the meeting resolved little by way of policy disagreements, although all three partners committed themselves to work towards consolidating a common Alliance platform at their forthcoming national conferences and congresses. Thus the August 1997 meeting cleared the way for the upcoming COSATU Congress (September 1997) and the ANC Conference (December 1997) to present a common commitment to the Alliance, yet without a consensus on the ANC's economic programme.

In order to facilitate this renewed commitment to the Alliance, there was some appearance of movement on GEAR, in the form of the statement that "any macroeconomic policy is not cast in stone." The Alliance partners agreed to strengthen internal policy and communications structures as well. But even with agreement reached on a process whereby disagreements over GEAR and other economic policies could be discussed within the Alliance, there was little indication of a rapprochement over the content of the policies.

On the one hand, the compromise position on the governments's macro-economic programme allowed the status quo - GEAR - to continue for the foreseeable future. Yet the meeting also had revealed extensive disagreements among COSATU, the SACP and the ANC on the goal of socialism, the relationship between the state and capital, the limitations of the international context, and the role of "mass mobilization." After outlining a number of quite specific areas of fundamental disagreement about the implications of the GEAR's strict deficit reduction targets, high interest rates, options for financing the South African deficit, and a relatively liberal tariff and foreign exchange regime, the most that COSATU and other GEAR critics could get was an agreement that "[w]here Fiscal and Monetary policy undermine the RDP, it needs to be reviewed."

At the September 1997 COSATU Congress, GEAR continued to be unpopular. In his speech to the assembly, President John Gomomo described it as "the reverse gear of our society," and delegates sang COSATU Asifuni Gear (COSATU does not want GEAR) as President Nelson Mandela departed from the Congress after giving a speech that defended the program's content (albeit conceding that the process of introducing it had been inappropriate).

COSATU's opposition to GEAR was not strong enough to lead the COSATU membership to make its participation in the Alliance conditional on the ANC dropping the program, however. Two resolutions that might have led to this outcome were defeated at the Congress. Instead, the trade union federation decided to try quietly to encourage the ANC to reform GEAR.

As a result, in the months between the COSATU Congress and the ANC Conference, there was much back-room dealing to hammer out a more solid compromise position. But the only visible outcome was the ANC's economic policy report to the December 1997 Conference which emphasized the congruence between RDP and GEAR aims. GEAR, it suggested, was "the initiative to give effect to the realization of the RDP by the maintenance of macro balances"! Delegates unanimously approved the resolution that: "[t]he Conference endorses the basic objective of macro-economic stability and the GEAR provides the basis for achieving such stability," adding that "like other policies it will be monitored and adjusted as required by analysis through the policy processes adopted in this conference and in the Alliance Summit." Of course, this avoided the risky proposition of forcing a vote on the GEAR program itself.

Whatever expectations the COSATU membership may have had that some type of a deal had been struck that would begin to move the government away from the GEAR program, the COSATU Executive was forced to conclude in May 1998 that "this strategy is being implemented [o]n all fronts." COSATU then re-committed itself to mobilizing its members and other communities to resist GEAR, as had been agreed at the September 1997 COSATU Congress.

This background merely makes it all the more striking that criticisms of GEAR and ANC policies became more muted as COSATU began, in ways outlined above, to prepare for the June 1999 elections, in favour of a highlighting of the achievements under the first five years of ANC government. "Workers have no intention of abandoning the only vehicle for real transformation -the ANC - in this election," announced the report from a February 1999 Executive meeting. "We seek instead to strengthen the ANC so as to continue in this historic path of transformation of the workplace."

What's in it for COSATU?

We return then to the question with which we began: given the serious disagreements over the government's economic program, why has COSATU made such a strong commitment to unconditionally supporting the ANC in the 1999 elections? The fact is, of course, that once senior COSATU leaders had made the decision to work through Alliance structures to reform the ANC from within, there were few alternatives left open to the trade union movement.

The bigger question, then, is why COSATU has chosen to stick with the Alliance despite obvious policy disagreements with the ANC? The easy answer might be that there is no mandate to do otherwise. Under the COSATU Constitution, a policy decision of the magnitude of breaking the Alliance would have to be passed by the majority of delegates at a major policy conference like a Congress. The proposal would need to come from one of the affiliated trade unions in the form of a resolution and be supported by a second affiliate. As unionists noted in September 1997, no affiliate had proposed such a resolution (although some noted that the deadline for submitting resolutions came before the ANC-COSATU disagreements over GEAR and the Basic Conditions of Employment Bill became quite so pronounced). The last time COSATU's membership in the Alliance had been formally discussed by the federation was at the September 1993 COSATU Special Congress (when the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa did indeed propose that the Alliance be discontinued in its existing form after the 1994 elections!)

Some have suggested that there was a certain amount of support for putting forward such a resolution again in 1999, but there was little interest on the part of the senior COSATU and affiliate office-bearers in allowing such a debate on the floor of the meeting. It is clear that important actors within COSATU, and particularly in the executive, did not support a break with the ANC. It is not irrelevant, perhaps, to point out that many senior COSATU office bearers and leaders in the affiliates also hold executive positions within the ANC and the SACP. These senior representatives are particularly likely to consider the fates of the three organizations to be intertwined. Indeed, as noted earlier, a large number senior COSATU leaders will again be leaving the organization to go to Parliament. This list includes, remarkably, four of COSATU's six office bearers - President John Gomomo, General Secretary Mbhazima (Sam) Shilowa, First Vice President Connie September and National Treasurer Ronald Mofokeng - as well as the regional secretaries of Wits and KwaZulu Natal, and the chairpersons of the Western Cape and Eastern Cape.

There are also some pragmatic organizational reasons why there was little real drive behind sentiments that might have wanted to see the Alliance break apart. For one thing, there is no other obvious party to support. The (New) National Party is closely associated with the apartheid past and with a neo-liberal present. The Democratic Party is dominated by whites and closely associated with an even more strident neo-liberalism. Inkatha has mainly regional support and a very tense history with COSATU, and the United Democratic Movement is widely seen as being comprised of opportunist thugs.

Would a more plausible alternative to the Alliance be for COSATU and the SACP to team up to offer a left alternative to the ANC? There has been some movement in this direction with the pledge at the COSATU Congress to build the SACP and to provide the party with some financial resources. But it seems clear that the SACP itself is unwilling to break with the Alliance, while many of the middle-rank unionists who would support leaving the ANC do not see the SACP as a natural ally. Another alternative, and one supported by some unionists, has been the idea of forming a new workers party. There has been little sign yet of discussions that might initiate such an alternative, however.

By mid1997 it was too late to organize a workers party in any case. In fact, it likely would take workers a number of years to get a party up and running and against enormous odds - few financial resources, mass media hostility, and divisions among COSATU members and leaders on the merits of the proposal. Moreover, a recent survey conducted by the Sociology of Work Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand indicates that rank and file COSATU workers remain supportive of the ANC and of the Alliance based on its historic role in the popular struggle: there may be, in short, little grass-roots pressure to break with the Alliance. Meanwhile, with such a break, COSATU would lose its privileged access to the state, something that at least the senior players in the organization seem unwilling to risk.

There remain signs, of course, that there is fairly widespread disillusionment with the ANC that may manifest itself in other ways instead. Some South African contacts have reported that despite the considerable financial and personnel resources COSATU and its affiliates have put behind the ANC electoral campaign, trade union activists have not invested a lot of energy into it. Elections structures are weak, they suggest, and have all but collapsed in some areas. Despite the campaign to encourage workers and their families and communities to obtain the proper identity document and to register to vote, the numbers to date have been disappointing. While there is little wide-spread enthusiasm for alternatives to the ANC there are growing indications of a more generalized depoliticization at the base and turn-out on election day may actually be very poor.

Benefits for the ANC?

For its part, the ANC has had some interest in making conciliatory gestures towards COSATU and the affiliates once they began to seriously plan for the 1999 elections. Although there has been growing criticism of COSATU and affiliates by ANC leaders, there has been little desire for a messy public split.

Moreover, in the current campaign the ANC will again rely on the organizational capacity of the COSATU affiliates to ensure their victory, just as they did in 1994. The ANC simply does not have the machinery in place to sustain an effective election campaign, with some key observers even arguing, more generally, that the ANC has been having considerable difficulty with any kind of mobilizing activity at the grass-roots. Making use of COSATU's infrastructure will simplify matters for the ANC considerably. As a result, from early 1998 representatives of the ANC's Elections Department began to court shop-stewards and regional organizers to support the ANC's electoral campaign by arranging visits by ANC political candidates to factories, pension pick-up points, and other places where large numbers of the ANC's expected constituency would be present.

Some of these early meetings were fraught with tension and hostility from affiliate leaders, and the need to court COSATU may have played a part in the "elections budget" in 1999 and other recent conciliatory moves by the ANC. The ANC Election Manifesto further evokes traditional South African working class demands and reiterates the ANC commitment to implementing the RDP. This Manifesto also emphasizes improvements in basic human and worker rights since 1994, and pledges to further improve working conditions and to create jobs. And the Manifesto commits the ANC to improving access to housing, social security, health care, transportation, education and other basic needs for South Africa's poor and working-class communities.

After June 2 1999

Whatever the eventual substance of such promises, we have seen that, for a range of possible reasons, COSATU as an organization has gone into these elections strongly touting the ANC - to the point of downplaying significantly the extent to which its policy aspirations were not met during the past five years. Yet although the ANC Election Manifesto commits the party to further protecting worker rights, it is not clear that things are likely to improve in this respect once the new mandate has been secured. Indeed, a recent news-story even suggests that the government has indicated "that in its new term it will ease up on the newly introduced and restrictive labour legislation, one of the business community's main bugbears, [thus] demonstrating its confidence that trade union militancy has peaked" ( Southscan, April 16 1999). This squares with other statements by key ANC leaders indicating government acceptance of the argument that recently won labour rights jeopardize job creation and its apparent willingness to battle COSATU head-on over such issues once the elections are over.

Do such straws in the wind make COSATU's choices over the past two years - unconditional electoral support for the ANC and the reassertion of a common agenda under Alliance control - all the more troubling? Perhaps, but COSATU has also continued to reaffirm that it will not be bound by ANC policies or positions but rather by its own program. Here much may depend on the character of the new COSATU executive to be elected in August 1999 (already there are rumours that Assistant General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who was at the forefront of the COSATU anti-GEAR campaign, will be challenged by a more moderate candidate for the General Secretary position). Still, given the continuing existence of significant underlying disagreements about the imperatives of South African economic transformation and despite the efforts on the part of both the ANC and COSATU to forge common ground, it can be expected that tensions between the two organizations will re-emerge soon after the elections.

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