Association of Concerned Africa Scholars Review (previously: Bulletin)
ACAS Bulletin 79: Special Issue on Zimbabwe Crisis

An Analysis of the Emerging Political Dispensation in South Africa – Parallels Between ZCTU-MDC and COSATU’s Relationship to ANC

June 2008


The early 1990s in Southern Africa saw the emergence of a exhilarating and esoteric phenomena-the embryonic rise of what I will call ‘trade unions-turned- political parties’, with Zambia providing the inaugural prototype in the successful metamorphosis of aspects of the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU-Zambia) into the first labor-based political party in Southern Africa, the gaudy Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). The MMD was led by the former Secretary General of ZCTU (Zambia), the nebulous Frederick Chiluba. The MMD won the subsequent key 1991 presidential election in Zambia which ended 27 of Kenneth ‘KK’ Kaunda’s increasingly tempestuous presidency in Zambia.Chiluba succeeded the inherently pertinacious Kaunda in this watershed election in Zambia. Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party (UNIP) had been in power since Zambia gained its independence from Britain in 1964.

Parallels between ZCTU-MDC and COSATU’s relationship to ANC

Almost 10 years after the electoral success of the MMD in neighboring Zambia, the puissant Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union also mutated into the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by the mercurial Morgan Tsvangirai (former Secretary General of the ZCTU-Zimbabwe)-the parallels between former labor leaders Chiluba and Tsvangirai are obvious-as well as the institutional transition of ZCTU (Zambia) into MMD and ZCTU (Zimbabwe) into MDC.

In view of these morphological developments over the last two decades in Southern Africa, the next obvious question is whether the labor movement in South Africa, the colossal and truculent Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) will also follow the ZCTU (Zambia) and ZCTU (Zimbabwe) route and transfigure itself into the major opposition political party for South Africa-an alternative to the currently monolithic anti-apartheid ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). It is imperative to note that ANC, UNIP and ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe were the key the liberation struggle movements in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively and combatants from these three parties shared military bases in Zambia during the wars of liberation against colonial rule in Southern Africa in the 1960s and 1970s-the colonial history of the all the three countries is intimately tied to Perfidious Albion. Zambia, in that sense, is the first instance where a liberation based party has been successfully voted out of office by a labor based opposition party in Southern Africa-Chiluba had crossed the Rubicon. This inspired the MDC in Zimbabwe-and the MDC almost won the crucial albeit controversial 2000 elections in Zimbabwe. There were strong allegations of voter rigging and associated political impishness by ZANU-PF in these contentious elections.

Significantly, the leadership of ZCTU/MDC is very close to the COSATU leadership-this has resulted in the 1.8 million-member COSATU holding demonstrations against the autocratic Zimbabwean government in South Africa.COSATU leaders have also been variously deported from Zimbabwe during some of their activist incursions into seemingly pariah Zimbabwe to confront the deeply praetorian Government of Robert Mugabe. Thabo Mbeki is a close ally of Mugabe because of their long historical nexus. In that sense, the belligerent Mugabe and the enigmatic Mbeki view COSATU and MDC as contentious organizations in their quest to ensure that only liberation based political parties in Southern Africa remain in power-hence Mbeki’s controversial ‘Quiet Diplomacy’ position on obtrusively kleptocratic Zimbabwe.

It is thus the contention of this paper that the only serious opposition to the ANC will have to come from within the ANC ruling alliance, with the possibility of COSATU breaking away from the alliance and forming South Africa’s first labor based opposition political party – there is a mosaic historical precedence to this in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Epic ANC ‘Battle Royal’- Jacob Zuma vs. Thabo Mbeki

The ubiquitous ruling tripartite alliance in South Africa is made up of the leviathan ANC, the pugnacious COSATU and the brambly South African Communist Party (SACP). The hitherto compact institutional troika that has ruled South Africa since 1994 is faced with its ultimate litmus test, especially over the last two years. Much of the attrition is arising from the circumstances surrounding the corruption and fraud allegations around the aberrant newly elected ANC President, Jacob ‘Msholozi’ Zuma- a larger than life idiosyncratic and charismatic politician. Zuma is also known for energetically dancing and singing to his controversial signature tune, ‘Aluweth’ umshini wami’ (‘Bring me my machine gun’)! Since 2005, Zuma has been engaged in a ‘battle royal’ of Ralph Ellison proportions with South African President, Thabo Mbeki. It is this political duel that is at the epi-centre of the increasingly acrimonious relations between certain sections of the ANC cabal and COSATU on the other hand. This asperity is at the heart of the unfolding political topography in South Africa-daggers have been drawn. 2008 is pivotal for the ruling alliance because Zuma is due to face trial in August-Zuma supporters, especially COSATU, argue that Zuma has no case to answer-rather he is a political victim of Mbeki’s political conspiracy to politically sideline Zuma and even push for a third term. COSATU, the SACP and Zuma supporters in ANC allege that the ostensibly frosty Platonic ‘Philosopher King’ Mbeki is using the elite investigative unit, the Scorpions, to settle political scores-a charge that Mbeki has denied. Sensationally, the now Zuma-dominated ANC leadership is pushing for the disbandment of Zuma’s nemesis, the Scorpions by June this year-however, Thabo Mbeki is fighting back, curiously with the support of the white dominated official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Since the Zuma camp won the crucial ANC elections in Limpopo in December 2007, the dreaded ‘two centers of power’ have emerged-Thabo Mbeki, the lame duck President of South Africa dominating the government turf (Union building)while the controversial, openly polygamous Jacob Zuma dominates the ANC turf (Luthuli house). This has created a serious operational crisis for the ANC because historically the president of ANC has normally also been the president of South Africa because of the traditional electoral dominance of the ANC in South Africa since independence in 1994. It will be interesting to see how the ANC and COSATU eventually cut this Gordian knot. Indeed, even if Zuma escapes conviction in August, that might just turn out be a Pyrrhic victory.

As the Roman Emperor, Caesar famously exclaimed, ‘Alea iacta est!’(The die has been cast!)- the die has indeed been cast and its political high noon in South Africa – will this be a ‘Year of Wonders’(annus mirabilis) or a ‘Horrible Year’(annus horribilis) or a ‘Dreadful Year’(annus terribilis) for South Africa? Or perhaps greater danger awaits! (graviora manent!)…

The relationship between ANC and COSATU is most likely to become more complex in the near future- tellingly, the fiery COSATU Secretary General, Zwelinzima Vavi, broke tradition and refused to be ‘deployed’ to the ANC’s powerful National Executive Council(NEC), despite being the Grey Cardinal behind spectacular Zuma’s ascendancy to the ANC presidency. Ostensibly, Vavi suggested that he is more effective in COSATU than in the ANC executive structures. It is imperative to note that historically, COSATU Secretary Generals have become key members of the ANC executive- for example the millionaire business mogul, Cyril Ramaphosa and the current ANC deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe. Infact, if Zuma is convicted in August, the balmy and highly respected Motlanthe is most likely to become the next president of South Africa. Already, the Zuma camp is pushing for Motlanthe to be ‘deployed’ to Cabinet or Parliament in anticipation of such a possibility-for doves in the Zuma camp, this is the silver bullet to the current cantankerous byzantine tripartite alliance politics. But such maneuvers have created serious fissures in the Zuma camp-especially among the more hawkish Zuma supporters who are of the view that it is too early to put plan B (Motlanthe) into action even before Zuma has stood for trial. Matthew Phosa, the ANC treasurer has been singled out for censure in this regard. Apparently, Phosa is aiming for a deputy presidency in a Motlanthe-run ANC government in 2009. This could be the Saigon moment for Zuma and a Sputnik moment for Motlanthe! The Zuma case is proving to be the Achilles’ heel for the ruling alliance while the Scorpions are the albatross around Zuma’s neck…

A Prognostic Analysis of the ANC-COSATU-SACP Ruling Alliance

As John F. Kennedy poignantly observed ‘Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names’, I see a widespread purging of pro-Mbeki elements in the alliance-the ‘lex talionis’ (laws of revenge) will be extensively applied- already there have been significant purges-Willie Madisha, a close Mbeki ally recently lost his position as president of COSATU. There have also been several strategic changes in parliament as the Zuma camp positions itself for the 2009 national elections in South Africa. The Day of Wrath (Dies Irae) has started in earnest in alliance politics. Indeed, as the wily Machiavelli aptly notes in The Prince, ‘Although power is shared, it is never shared equally’ so it will be with the power configuration in the post-Polokwane alliance. A Zuma-led ANC and possibly government will be confronted by the ‘crisis of rising expectations’, they have promised so much when they have limited policy autonomy to change the economic conservatism course that Mbeki has defined for South Africa. But perhaps, as the French Emperor, Napoleon pointed out, ‘If you wish to be a success in the world, promise everything and deliver nothing’!

Within the ruling alliance, the SACP and COSATU ties have been exceptionally close-COSATU boss, Vavi and the SACP Secretary, Blade Nzimande, are among some of the staunchest supporters of Zuma and the latter has been rewarded handsomely for his efforts with a coveted membership in the ANC National Executive Committee. This was part of the COSATU and SACP strategy to ‘flood’ the key ANC structures and to push ANC policies towards the left and Zuma was their point man in ANC giving resonance to the English poet, William Blake’s incisive anecdote, ‘No bird soars too high if he soars on his own wings’.

Vavi even went further and prophetically proclaimed that ‘Zuma is like a tsunami, he is unstoppable’. Mbeki learnt the full meaning of this statement after a humiliating defeat for the ANC presidency at the hands of Zuma at the watershed ANC Conference in Limpopo December 2007. Indeed, as the erudite African proverb observes, ‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’! ANC has suffered deeply from the Mbeki-Zuma political duel. Never has such hostility been seen in ANC since it was formed over 95 years ago- possibly the oldest political party in Africa. Even party elders like the revered Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela have expressed public concern about the state of institutional attrition and personal acrimony within the ANC. The respected Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, has also expressed deep concern with the state of affairs in the ANC. Voices of concern have also come from unlikely sources- Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkhata Freedom Party has also added his voice to the events in ANC. A doyen of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Winnie Madikizela Mandela also expressed her concerns on the unprecedented chaos within the ANC leadership ranks. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance has held meetings with Mbeki on this issue and is due to also engage Zuma. So there is national concern on the state of the ruling alliance in South Africa. Because of the political dominance of the ANC, if there are problems in the ANC, the effects are felt immediately across the whole socio-economic fabric of South Africa-ANC is a national institution. This, coupled with rising crime, AIDS, unemployment, poverty and power cuts in South Africa reverberate with the Ashanti proverb, ‘The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people’. My own assessment is that ANC will probably retain this hegemonic status for another five years-after that, because of the increasing tensions within the alliance, I envisage a possible scenario in which COSATU will pull out of the tripartite alliance and create a viable opposition party to ANC within the next few years-the foundation is being laid down now by history. This reechoes the Ethiopian proverb, ‘A loose tooth will not rest until it is pulled out’!

United States foreign policy on South Africa and Africa in general

In the meantime, South Africa will also need to grapple with its important economic and political relationship with the United States. In terms of strategic interests, South Africa (gold) and Nigeria (oil) are two of the most important countries for United States in Africa. American investment in Africa thus tend to be concentrated in these two countries, especially South Africa, where there is a strong American corporate presence. Significantly, both Nigeria and South Africa have over the last few years deepened their trade with China, raising a lot of concern from the United States and the European Union.

Partly in response to the phenomenal expansion of Chinese business interest in Africa, the United States is planning to set up military bases in Africa in the near future as part of the US Africa Command ‘Africom’ project. US President George Bush issued out a directive to the US Defense Secretary in February 2007 to begin the process of setting up the American military bases. The bases were planned to be fully operational in Africa by August 2008. The operational cluster of ‘Africom’ is currently housed in Germany and a US General Ward has already been appointed as the commander of the Africom. However, it has since emerged that despite President Bush’s recent goodwill visit to Africa, Africom is struggling to find hosts-only Liberia has so far committed itself to host the base. There is a lot of concern among African countries that Africom will result in the extensive militarization of Africa-a charge that General Ward has denied. In view of the apparent lack of hosts, the Africom implementation plan in Africa has been deferred to any unspecified date in the future by Pentagon. So in the meantime, Africom will continue operating from its Germany base until the relevant hosts have committed themselves in Africa.

The official reason for the setting up of Africom is that the US now believes that Africa is the new frontier on the US ‘War on Terror’, especially the Horn of Africa and North Africa- Darfur, Mogadishu and Algiers being the flash points. Ideally, United States seeks to set up five military bases, covering all the major regions of Africa, namely North Africa (possibly in Egypt); West Africa (Liberia); East Africa (possibly Ethiopia); Central Africa (possibly Democratic Republic of Congo) and Southern Africa (possibly Mozambique or Botswana). South Africa could have been ideal, but United States-South Africa relations have been rather frosty over, inter alia, South Africa’s controversial ‘quiet diplomacy’ position on the Zimbabwean crisis-revealingly, President Bush avoided South Africa on what might be his last visit to Africa before he steps down from office. The last time he was in Africa, almost 2 years ago he visited South Africa with a lot of enthusiasm and even declared that South African president Mbeki was the US’ ‘point man’ on the Zimbabwean crisis but there has been no break through to the Zimbabwean crisis despite the official reassurances from the South African government to the US.

United States is also keen to encourage African countries to sign up for the controversial International Criminal Court (ICC)- which, again is another key feature to the American ‘War on Terror’ initiative in Africa. United States is also wishes to increase its uptake level of oil from Africa and to reduce dependence on the generally volatile Middle East region. Significantly, Ghana, Zambia and Uganda recently ‘discovered’ oil! It is also imperative to note that Nigeria is the 5th largest supplier of oil to the US. From an African perspective US strategy appears to be centered on focusing more on African oil and then combining African sources with the sugar cane ethanol from Brazil and corn ethanol from Iowa. This could be a long term strategic focus of the Africom project in Africa. US also import other minerals like copper (from Zambia) and other precious minerals from Democratic Republic of Congo, inter alia.

Because of the expanding Chinese business presence, Africa is now witnessing the ‘Second Scramble’ for Africa by global powers-complete with elements of what I will call the ‘New Cold War’ between United States and China in Sudan. The European Union has increased its focus on Africa- French president has been to Africa three times since he assumed office and is very keen to maintain French military bases in former key French colonies like Senegal, Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic. The British also have a technical military training base in Mozambique. It is not only the European Union (EU) and the US who are responding decisively to the Chinese economic expansion in Africa-Taiwan has renewed its ‘dollar diplomacy’ war with China, with the recent serious fall out between China and Taiwan over diplomatic relations with Malawi. Infact, most African countries, especially Zimbabwe are actively pursuing what is now the buzz word in Africa, ‘The Look East’ policy, which basically means reducing trade and economic dependence on the traditional Western partners and focusing instead on China. The first major Sino-Africa business conference took place in China about two years and virtually all the African leaders attended. This was at a time when the second African Union-European Union ran into serious policy difficulties particularly over the Zimbabwean crisis- African countries had rallied around Zimbabwe and refused to participate in the Conference if Zimbabwe was not admitted. This stand-off had taken place collectively over a period of 7 years and the Conference only took place in Lisbon late last year after the European Union gave in to the demands of the African Union (AU)-the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown kept its promise and boycotted this crucial AU-EU Conference because the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, was in attendance. This whole diplomatic drama was unprecedented in EU-AU relations. The actual meeting was largely acrimonious and most African countries criticized European countries fro their colonial role in Africa and most refused to renew some of the long standing trade agreements with Europe.

The source of this unprecedented confidence of African countries is easy to identify-China. The latter is offering African countries a very flexible alternative to Western countries and this trend is bound to deepen this decade with China’s increased consumption of natural resources to sustain its phenomenal economic growth of 12% over the last five years. For good measure, China is constructing the new $130 million AU headquarters in Addis Ababa for free-it’s a Chinese donation to the African people!

The implications of these developments on US-South Africa relations are immense- China is now the largest producer of gold in the world but is also the largest importer of gold and the impact of this is already starting to show in the trade relations between South Africa, US and China.

Some concluding remarks

Within the next few months, the increasingly complex South African relations with US and China will not be the only issues on South African President Thabo Mbeki’s mind-depending with how things turn out, he might just perform his ultimate volte-face by pushing for a third term in office. South Africa’s constitution does not currently allow a president to run for more than two terms-thus Mbeki is ineligible for a third term under the current constitution but he has hinted over the years that he is available for a third term, if the people see it fit! Infact, his recent unsuccessful attempt to hold on to the ANC presidency might have been part of that broader strategy for cultivating the ‘third term’ idea. A number of key ANC constituencies in the Eastern Cape appear to be behind this initiative. The ‘third term’ project might explain why Mbeki’s condemnation of Robert Mugabe has been rather lukewarm- because, perhaps, he wanted to eventually go the ‘Robert Mugabe way’ in South Africa! Already, there is a serious fall out between white commercial farmers and the South African government over land…and cases of racism are on the increase.

But for the time being Mbeki has to confront his ANC demons-there are currently attempts by the Zuma camp to re-open the highly controversial arms deal case that might swallow Mbeki in its vortex. This issue is now in the public domain following a very revealing book on the arms deal scandal by a former ANC member of parliament who is now based in London. The Zuma camp also appears to be planning to investigate ANC business dealings and investments concluded during Mbeki’s watch, including the Chancellor House file, ANC business interest in the giant telecommunication business concern, Telkom and Mbeki’s allies business interest in the oil giant, Sasol. This is consistent with the perennial position from the Zuma camp that although economic growth have been high under Mbeki, it has largely benefited a small group of black elite, the so-called ‘black diamonds’ who are highly connected to the Mbeki camp. Most of them have benefited from the controversial affirmative action policy, the ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ Act (BEE Act). It is this small core group of the super rich black middle class created by Mbeki’s BEE policy that has attracted the ire of the populist Zuma camp in ANC. Most of the members of this black elite are active participants at the contentious intellectual forum initiated by Mbeki called the ‘Native Club’. The central discussions at this Club are dominated by Thabo Mbeki’s pet project for Africa-‘The African Renaissance’ vision, which inspired his famous speech, ‘I am an African’.

Mbeki also has to worry about the small matter of Jackie Selebi, the currently suspended National Police Commissioner, the unsettled issue of the Scorpions boss, the spy case in Cape Town, the Eskom power cuts which are now threatening the critical gold industry in South Africa, the regular ‘service delivery’ demonstrations in poor black neighborhoods, the Dr. Ginwala’s Commission, the future of the Scorpions and the forthcoming trial of Jacob Zuma in August…then the unsettled matters of ‘Manto’Tshabalala,the controversial Health Minister, ‘Travel gate’ scandal and the ‘media wars’. The recent biography of Thabo Mbeki by the seasoned South African journalist, perhaps paints the most detailed picture of the highly complex personality of the enigmatic Thabo Mbeki, known in his inner circles simply as ‘The Chief’.

Which ever direction South Africa eventually takes, 2008 will be the defining moment for the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and the country might live in the shadow of those events for a while.

Succinctly, I will conclude that all these fundamental political, social and economic events are ultimately laying the foundation for the collapse of the ruling alliance and the possible emergence of COSATU as a labor based political party in South Africa in the near future. Perhaps, the precedence was set in Zambia and Zimbabwe a decade ago…

About the Author

Augustine Hungwe, Visiting Assistant Professor, Bard College, New York.

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