South Africa

Tripartite Alliance Reaping What It Has Sown

"The spark that set off the latest round of 'battles' among alliance partners was the firing last year of South Africa's then-deputy-president Jacob Zuma, by Mbeki." (Photo: Rajesh Jantilal / AFP-Getty Images)

The alliance is dead! Long live the alliance! That about sums up the politics of the organizational marriage between the African National Congress (A.N.C.), the South African Communist Party (S.A.C.P.), and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) over the last 12 years. Like many marriages, the one between these three formations simply continues to exist in form, despite the fact that it long ago lost any meaningful content or purpose, other than for its own perpetuation and the self-absorbed security of societal sanction. Both the historical and more recent, and much publicized, political "battles" among the marriage partners are nothing more than (repeated) confirmations of the "dead-but-alive" character of the Tripartite Alliance.

For many years now, the two "left" partners in the alliance (the S.A.C.P. and COSATU) have engaged in a gradual, but no less systematic, process of organizational and ideological self-marginalization. This they have done by playing an ultimately destructive and double-edged "inside-outside" game of alliance politics.

On the one hand, the alliance "left" has issued wave upon wave of public written and verbal criticism of the A.N.C.'s economic policies and its political management of the alliance, as well as in more recent years of the leadership style of President Thabo Mbeki and his government inner circle alongside the power and influence of the new black bourgeoisie. These criticisms have occasionally been buttressed by short-term strike actions over wages/working conditions and political campaigns targeting various domestic and international issues related to government policy and institutional redress in favor of the broad working class.

On the other hand, the S.A.C.P. and COSATU have consistently relied on the efficacy of alliance "traditions" of top-level "consultations" and "processes" (which have always been inherently elitist and demobilizing of their own mass bases), to deal with their criticisms and "manage" the fallout from any independent actions. Such "insider" politics has been publicly and institutionally underpinned by offering wholehearted electoral support to the A.N.C. at each election, the consistent entrance into high-level government positions of leading members of the alliance "left" and the closing of the "ranks" against left criticism and struggles of the poor emanating from outside of the alliance.

As a result, alliance politics has, over the years, resembled the acting out of a repetitive scene from a comical farce. The dirt is thrown, a scuffle ensues, there are quiet whispers and then it's hugs all-round with mutual self-congratulations thrown in for added effect. The consistent end result in relation to the practical, real-life struggles of the masses that the alliance partners all claim to represent with varying degrees of intensity and scope, has been to ensure that the building and sustaining of an alternative, anti-capitalist politics by those masses becomes organizationally and ideologically nigh impossible in the South African context.

In recent months, however, there are many on the left (both in South Africa and globally) who have become convinced that there has been a substantial shift in the post-1994 character and content of alliance politics. More specifically, there appears to be a widespread feeling (which is not confined to any particular ideological hue or organizational form) that an intensifying class war is taking place inside the alliance that could result either in its (much anticipated) break-up, or in a serious shake-up of internal power relations, especially within the A.N.C. The basis for this kind of perspective derives from the frenzy of personal and organizational, intra-alliance feuding, that has been played out in various S.A.C.P., COSATU, and A.N.C. "discussion documents," the court system, the mainstream media, as well as within the structures of the three alliance partners.

The spark that set off the latest round of "battles" among alliance partners was the firing last year of South Africa's then-deputy-president Jacob Zuma, by Mbeki, ostensibly due to a court finding that Zuma had engaged in a "generally corrupt" relationship with A.N.C.-aligned businessman Shabir Shaik, who was involved in tendering for arms deal contracts. Zuma cried foul and very publicly insinuated that there was a conspiracy within the A.N.C. to derail his political career and thus prevent him from potentially becoming the next president of both the A.N.C. and the country.

When Zuma was subsequently charged with rape (he was eventually found not guilty), the conspiracy theories grew louder and the scene was set. Not surprisingly, it did not take long for leading members of the S.A.C.P. (alongside its youth wing — the Young Communist League), COSATU, and the perpetually opportunistic leaders of the A.N.C. Youth League to see the political gap created by this political and personal fissure within the A.N.C., latch on to Zuma's victim status and make the link to wider ideological and organizational grievances within the alliance, and the A.N.C., that they had been shouting about for so long.

In quick time, all sorts of speculative political articles on the future of the A.N.C. and the alliance started making the rounds. "Discussion documents" addressing long-standing S.A.C.P. and COSATU criticisms of the character and content of A.N.C. and alliance politics, alongside ripostes from Mbeki and the A.N.C. were (and continue to be) unveiled. Public statements defending or attacking both Zuma and Mbeki have streamed out of various alliance structures. Self-styled ideological "camps" purporting to represent the "truth" and speaking on behalf of the masses have taken shape. Clearly, this time the dirt is being thrown with extra energy and the scuffles infused with added venom.

But does all of this mean that the S.A.C.P. and COSATU are now on the verge of achieving what many of their leaders have talked about for so long — that is, a (re)capturing of the "heart and soul" of the A.N.C. so as to "rescue" a "national democratic revolution" that has been "hijacked" by anti-working class forces within the alliance? Do these "battles" hail an emergent class war within the alliance, an irreparable breakdown between the self-styled alliance "left" and "center-left", a potentially qualitative shift in power relations of post-apartheid South Africa's political economy that would seriously threaten South African capitalism?

The simple answer to such questions is no! The present "battles" are, in reality, the most recent manifestation (albeit more public and intense) of long-running, intra-alliance elite jostling for future position and power. There will be, in all probability, some musical chairs among the leadership of the A.N.C. at its next congress in 2007, macro-economic policies of the government might well genuflect a bit further toward mitigating the ongoing suffering of the poor, and the S.A.C.P. and COSATU could gain a firmer foothold in the corridors of institutionalized political and economic power. But that's about it. The marriage will continue and so, too, will the farce that is the alliance.

The alliance is dead! Long live the alliance!

From Green Left Weekly.