Adam Habib is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research,Innovation and Advancement at the University of Johannesburg. As a professor of political science, he provides astute commentary on the political situation in South Africa as well as analysis of Africa's politics.
Another public spat between members of the tripartite alliance; another plea for unity from President Jacob Zuma. This is what the 2009 SA Communist Party congress will be remembered for. Julius Malema being booed by delegates; his argument with Gwede Mantashe for not being able to address the congress; his subsequent walkout with Tony Yengeni, and the ensuing spat and public debate that surrounded it.
In the past few months, South Africa witnessed acrimonious public engagements between alliance partners over the National Planning Commission (NPC), leadership battles at the parastatals - especially Eskom and Transnet - and the nationalisation of mines, all of which culminated in the tensions at the SACP congress.
What is going on?
At the outset, it must be said that many commentators observed that the Zuma camp represented an assortment of individuals - nationalists, socialists, even conservatives, and established or aspirant business people looking for the next quick deal - all of whom were united in the build-up to Polokwane by a desire to get rid of Thabo Mbeki.
And this is exactly what we have seen.
At the heart of the conflicts are serious differences about the goals South Africa should pursue, where it is in this regard, and what policies it should advance.
The leadership of the ANC, however, should be concerned that these differences are not being engaged in a robust, comradely way. Rather, it is a debate conducted as if it were between enemies, with name calling, racial labelling and the personalisation of issues. In many ways it has the flavour of the pre-Polokwane debate, which should be of concern to the leadership since the ruling party can ill afford another round of divisions after the bruising duel between Zuma and Mbeki.
The conflict between the nationalists and socialists which, it must be said, does not coincide with the organisational boundaries of the tripartite alliance, exploded into the public domain in the debate around the NPC.
When minister in the presidency Trevor Manuel moved to consolidate his position through the Green Paper on National Strategic Planning, Cosatu interpreted it as a power grab and an attempt by the Mbeki camp to return and dominate government thinking.
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi responded by essentially launching a pre-emptive critique from the podium of the Cosatu congress, signalling that the Left was on guard to ensure that their policy victories in Polokwane would not be thwarted. The attack itself was highly personalised and unfair to Manuel.
But it also had the effect of galvanising the mutterings that had been bubbling under the organisational surface about the influence of the communists, and it reinvigorated the nationalist wing into action.
Billy Masetlha was the first to go public about his concerns about communist influence in the ANC. He was supported by others in the national executive committee, including Tony Yengeni, and then Julius Malema. This explains the hostility towards them by delegates at the SACP congress.
As this debate subsided, others emerged. The next round of tension emerged around the leadership battles at the parastatals, first at Transnet and then at Eskom. In both, the nationalists seemed to support Siyabonga Gama and Jacob Maroga against their boards in the battle for control at Transnet and Eskom, respectively. The unions and the SACP, in contrast, took a broader view, interpreting these conflicts as involving issues of competence, delivery and the development mandate.
This was most dramatically demonstrated in the Eskom debacle. Whereas the Black Management Forum and the ANC Youth League in the persona of Julius Malema defended Maroga against the chairman of the board and accused chairman Bobby Godsell of racism, the unions' responses were far more mature and compliant with corporate governance principles.
Their stance suggested a perspective that the development mandate takes priority if there is tension between it and the goal of representivity. This is not to suggest that the unions do not support demographic representivity. Of course they do. But through this stance they signalled that representivity should not come at the cost of delivery and the development mandate.
The most recent conflict revolved around the nationalisation of mines. It was occasioned by recent calls by the likes of Malema to reconsider the ostensibly radical recommendation of nationalising South Africa's mines. Jeremy Cronin, the deputy general secretary of the SACP and deputy minister of transport, critically analysed the proposal and suggested it was inappropriate since these were marginal assets that would saddle the state with high levels of debt.
Malema, of course, responded harshly, accusing Cronin of acting as a white messiah, a racialised and chauvinistic response that was similar to the one launched against Cronin by Dumisani Makhaye in the Mbeki era. This time, though, Cronin's comrades rallied to his defence, provoking the serious public spat between the SACP and the ANC Youth League.
The response of Cosatu and the SACP on the leadership battles in the parastatals and on the nationalisation debate suggest that they are concerned that the nationalist wing is increasingly motivated by the narrow aspirations of the BEE entrepreneurs.
Their opposition to the nationalists indicates that, where this conflicts with the broader development mandate, Cosatu and the SACP are increasingly going to come down in favour of broad-based inclusive development.
Human settlements minister Tokyo Sexwale is said to have made the point at the SACP congress that communists must respect the boundaries between the national democratic and socialist phases of South Africa's transition. This is a common call by the nationalist wing of the ANC, which maintains that the SACP and Cosatu ignore the fact that this is the national democratic and not the socialist phase of the transition.
But is this actually true? Even in the ANC lexicon the national democratic phase is not meant to be a conservative black capitalism. Rather, it is envisaged as a social democratic society; a mixed economy in which an inclusive development is the core agenda of the state. The narrow interests of black capitalists are not meant to predominate. Instead their interests, and those of the broader capitalist class, are meant to be harmonised with those of the broader citizenry, as has happened in social democratic societies around the world. Inclusive development, rather than narrow enrichment, is meant to be the central motif of the national democratic phase of the transition.
In this sense, Cosatu and the SACP are much more in line with the ANC's vision. They are not advancing socialist goals. If they were, they would be opposed to BEE since it involves private ownership.
Instead, they support BEE but demand that it be broadened to incorporate new, small entrepreneurs and community groups. The central message coming from Vavi, Nzimande, Cronin and others is inclusive development: a market economy that serves a broader range of stakeholders.
They have come out heavily against corruption, particularly around the tendering processes at local government level.
They have insisted that BEE be broad-based and supportive of broader developmental goals. And they have insisted that the interests of business be harmonised with those of inclusive development. Where the two come into conflict, they have insisted that inclusive development be prioritised.
But if Cosatu and the SACP have been on the right policy track when it comes to democracy and inclusive development, their behaviour has not always fostered these goals. As indicated earlier, the debate around the NPC was unnecessarily personalised. Similarly, the booing of invited guests from the ANC NEC is not acceptable. Even if Malema engaged in such conduct, Cosatu and the SACP need to transcend it if only because such behaviour does not enable open, robust and respectful debate.
A while ago a senior member of the ANC encouraged me to write a piece "How does the ruling class rule when in power?" Essentially it was a play on the title of a book by a Marxist scholar, Goran Therborn, What Does the Ruling Class Do When it Rules? who wrote of the nuanced way - through norms and values rather than brute force - that the capitalist class rules.
Essentially, this member of the ANC feared that the strengthened position of Cosatu and the SACP in the post-Polokwane era would be compromised by the crude behaviour of its leadership and activists.
He wanted this leadership to articulate their views in more nuanced language, in more respectful tones, and in behaviour that would appeal to a broader range of stakeholders than their immediate membership.
It is a message that the leadership of Cosatu and the SACP would do well to heed and internalise.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on December 20, 2009