Zuma’s contradictory coalition

13th November 2009 By: Aubrey Matshiqi

In the months leading up to the 2007 Polokwane conference of the African National Congress (ANC), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) expressed some disquiet about the orientation of the postapartheid State.

They argued that, under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki, the postapartheid State had deve- loped a bias towards capital and the middle class. This, they argued, had happened at the expense of the poor and the working class. It is in this context that we saw a resurgence of debates about the developmental State – a State that would be interventionist in giving effect to the content of South Africa’s developmental path.

Applying thinking that is a variant of the discourse about the East-Asian developmental State, Cosatu and the SACP (the left) sought to make sure that, after Polokwane, the delivery of services to the poor would be accelerated, given the fact that President Jacob Zuma has the same class origins as many who are part of their constituency. In other words, the election of Zuma as president of the ANC came with the expectation that his administration would be much more sympathetic to the needs of workers and the poor. On the other hand, there were expectations outside the ANC that Zuma would suppress the radicalism of the left or, alternatively, the left would not be as demanding on one they had succeeded in installing as head of State.

Both expectations do not take into account the complex nature of the coalition which came into existence in support of Zuma’s Presidential ambitions. We must bear in mind that the Zuma coalition is inherently contradictory because of two factors: first, not everyone who voted for Zuma in Polokwane wanted him to be elected head of State after the April elections, and, second, Zuma and the left represent a tension between the interests of the ANC establishment (of which Zuma is part) and an anti-establishment orientation towards economic policy (as represented by the left).

It is, therefore, not surprising that cracks – political and ideological – are beginning to appear in Zuma’s coalition. The irony of the situation, however, is that these cracks are partly facilitated by the opening up of the democratic space within the ANC and the tripartite alliance. After Polokwane, the left has more space than was the case under Mbeki’s leadership to engage in policy and political battles with the ANC.

Another irony lies in the fact that some of the powers that were enjoyed by Mbeki when he was leader of the ruling party were taken away in Polokwane in response to perceptions that Mbeki had centralised power in the realm of the State at the expense of the ANC, its rank and file and its left allies. This means that Zuma is not as powerful a leader of the ANC as Mbeki was, and this has implications for the options available to him when mediating policy tensions within the ANC and the tripar- tite alliance.

It is in this context that the tensions swirling around Minister in the Presidency responsible for the National Planning Commission Trevor Manuel must be understood. This is what informed Zuma’s intriguing balancing act of leaving Manuel out of the economic planning cluster. Zuma probably understands that removing Manuel from finance was never going to appease the left fully. He probably recognises that the left realises that Manuel will remain an important voice in shaping the content of macroeconomic policy as long as he remains in Cabinet.

But kicking him out of Cabinet is not an option at the moment, given the need to appease nervous markets. In the process, Zuma may end up compromising his agenda because it does not make sense to put Manuel in charge of Statewide planning when he is denied the opportunity to make an input in a Cabinet cluster in charge of economic planning. By appeasing the left, Zuma may succeed in alienating internal constituencies in the ruling party. Remember that tension has developed between those who argue that the ANC, not the alliance, is the strategic centre, and those who regard the alliance, not the ANC, as the strategic centre. This means that tensions over policy content and the planning function will probably continue until Zuma shows leadership with regard to the policy, political and ideological division of labour in the alliance.

This involves navigating two challenges: first, the emerging perception within the ANC that he is a stooge of the left and, second, the view that the alliance must be the source of government policy. On the other hand, in the months leading up to next year’s National General Council of the ANC, Zuma may have to worry less about policy content and more about whether he will be a survivor or a casualty of the 2012 centenary conference of the ruling party.