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Dissecting ANC’s hostile response to Cosatu-sponsored civil society conference

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Dissecting ANC’s hostile response to Cosatu-sponsored civil society conference

Aubrey Matshiqi speaks on tensions between the ANC and Cosatu. Camera: Nicholas Boyd. Editing: Darlene Creamer.

12th November 2010

By: Aubrey Matshiqi

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It is not uncommon these days to hear people bemoaning the fact that the United Democratic Front (UDF) was disbanded after the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1990.

The UDF was launched at the height of the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s and became an internal mass political movement of unrivalled importance and effectiveness since the banning of the ANC in 1960. Soon after the launch of the UDF, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) was formed in 1985. Cosatu was seen as the reincarnation of the exiled South African Congress of Trade Unions, an ally of both the ANC and the South African Communist Party. It is for this reason that some of the hottest debates before and after the launch of Cosatu revolved around whether the labour federation should be part of the tripartite alliance or not. These debates were shaped by the fact that Cosatu was then, as it is today, not an ideologically homogeneous body. It consisted of, besides others, elements from the Congress tradition, the so-called workerists, who believed in the separation of politics from labour issues, and sections of the ultraleft that were hostile to the SACP and the idea of an alliance with the ANC.

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The proponents of the Congress tradition prevailed, but tensions between the different traditions continue to this day. On the other hand, the UDF was regarded as the internal wing of the ANC, an idea that was not uncontested. This idea was contested because, like Cosatu, the UDF was itself not an ideological monolith but, as was the case with Cosatu, the Congress tradition ruled the roost.

I am giving you this history lesson because it is partly in this historical context that we must understand the rationale behind the ostensibly Cosatu-sponsored civil society conference that was held in Boksburg at the end of October. The same context must inform our understanding of the ANC’s hostile response to the conference and the utterances that were made by Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of the labour federation. In addition, it will help to remember that the UDF was disbanded because it was believed that the ANC would deliver substantively on the liberation and democratic fronts. The holding of the UDF-like civil society conference challenges the position of the ANC as a former liberation movement in four ways. Firstly, it suggests that there may be growing discontent about the performance of the ANC government. In other words, there are perceptions of a growing gap between the political legitimacy of the ruling party and its ability to govern. This means that even some supporters of the ANC perceive a growing gap between what was promised by the postapartheid order and what it actually delivers at the moment.

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Secondly, people may be losing faith in both the ruling party and opposition parties. If I am correct, this means that there are citizens, including some supporters of the ANC, who are beginning to look for answers in the nonparty political space.

Thirdly, this may be an attempt by civil society to reclaim the space that was lost to the ANC as a result of civil society formations going into a state of retreat. Further, it is possible that there is an attempt by those who are not part of the Congress tradition to capture Vavi and the civil society space. Alternatively, Vavi seeks to use the space as one of the tools he will use if he decides to pursue higher political ambitions.

This, I suspect, is why Vavi’s comrades in the ANC are livid. To them, the civil society venture is an attack on the ANC and is, therefore, counter-revolutionary. My view is that what is bad for the ANC is not always bad for the country and our democracy. As I have argued before, we must nurture the nonparty political space because our democracy will be stronger for it. However, if the idea is to delink, our democracy will be impoverished. We must bear in mind that delinking from the ANC should not be the same as delinking from democratic engagement. Democratic engagement must entail some interaction, even conflict at times, between the party political space and the nonparty political space.

This, I hope, is what Vavi and his comrades in civil society have in mind. The civil society venture may be a product of opportunism, but this does not detract from the fact that most of those who believe in the idea are driven by a genuine concern about democratic, delivery and other deficits. Further, and in our context of single-party dominance and the dismal performance of opposition parties, the nonparty political space must constitute a defence against powerful political and business interests when such interests come into conflict with the public good.

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