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A dramatic ‘realignment’ in the coalition of political forces that came together at South Africa’s ruling African National Congress’ 2007 Polokwane conference – which swept Thabo Mbeki out of the presidency of the party and country and lifted Jacob Zuma to the pinnacle of power – is currently taking place, writes William Gumede in this week’s Pambazuka News.

This month it has been a moment of truth for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP): They have come to realise that they may have carried Zuma into the South African Presidency, but that that does not mean they will dominate policies in the post-Polokwane era.

The analysis from strategists in both Cosatu and the SACP is now that they may have to compete with other lobbies, such as the nationalist-populist wing, personified by the ANC Youth League, and the powerful black business wing of the ANC, for the ear of Zuma. Although under Mbeki, the SACP and Cosatu were not even listened to, they have expected that under Zuma they will give the ideological, intellectual and strategic direction to the ANC government.

The truth is, historical examples elsewhere in the developing world show that it is very difficult to, when in government, hold together such a widely ideological divergent coalition, consisting of nationalists, traditionalists, populists, business, communists and social democrats – as Zuma is trying to do. Such a broad alliance can almost only be sustained when in opposition fighting a discredited colonial, minority or even military regime.

In fact, a broad governing coalition as that of Zuma can most probably only work, when every group signs a mutually agreed social pact, in which the core policies, service delivery timeframes, leadership quotas for each group and transparent rules to hold them accountable, are clearly spelled out.

The current realignment within the ANC family is still a direct result of the storm unleashed at Polokwane – where the leadership took place from Mbeki to Zuma; and which led to the formation of the breakaway Congress of the People (COPE) by centrists supporters of Mbeki angry at his brutal dismissal in 2008.

The grouping of ANC centrists that used to be allied to Mbeki – and who have not left for COPE – are now in retreat. They are scattered and not a coherent force anymore. Some leading centrist pro-Mbeki individuals have been co-opted by or have joined Zuma: Their political survival is now mostly dependent on Zuma’s personal protection.

Included in the realignment within the ANC family is the planned formation next year of a Party of the Left, by members of the SACP and Cosatu who opposed the two organisations’ support for Zuma at the Polokwane conference. This group, mostly provincial leaders of the two formations, are planning a conference in March next year, to lay the foundations of a new ‘democratic’ Left party. This group have strongly insisted that Zuma’s left credentials fell well short, and therefore cannot be supported by the ANC Left as a candidate for the ANC and country presidency. Many of those who argued like this were purged by SACP and Cosatu leaders. Sidelined, they are now at the head of the move to try to form a party of the Left. They want to marshal communities protesting spontaneously across the country against poor local government service delivery, corruption and inefficiency, behind their cause.

They also want to mop up disgruntled members of other groupings on the black Left: The remaining supporters of the rapidly disintegrating Pan Africanist Party of Azania (PAC), and those of the increasingly flatfooted Black Consciousness parties such as the Azanian Peoples Organisation and Socialist Party. They are also wooing the grassroots movements that broke away from the ANC after the 2000 local government elections, such as the Anti-Privatisation Forum, which is often labelled within the ANC Left as ‘ultra-Left.

Where will all of this end? Possibly, this infighting within the Zuma-ANC coalition could go on until the ANC’s 2012 national conference. This will of course mean there will be paralysis in both the ANC and government until then. Little delivery can happen when there is paralysis at the centre of government and the ruling party. Yet, if lack of delivery continues, combined with public infighting among ANC leaders, and conspicuous consumption, amidst rising poverty and unemployment, among the black majority, more and more ordinary ANC supporters will think of deserting it. This is especially true if credible alternative political parties start to form outside the ANC. In this scenario, the ANC’s 2012 national conference could turn into pitch battle between the Left groups (Cosatu and the SACP) on the one hand; and the assortment of nationalists, populists, traditionalists and business on the centre and centre-right. Such a fight won’t be about policies or ideology, but over personalities, leadership positions and control of the state.

Out of this potentially bloody tussle, either the SACP and Cosatu group; or the nationalists-populists-traditionalists (with support of key black business figures), could emerge victorious. The losing faction could compromise with the winning one, or keep fighting from the margins – thus sustaining a cycle of government paralysis. Or it could see the SACP and Cosatu walking out and forming a Workers Party – if they loose the 2012 battle. Or finally, the intensity of the infighting could also splinter the ANC into a number of separate smaller components – breaking up the ANC, with a whole new group of parties arises from the ashes.


* William Gumede is co-editor with Leslie Dikeni of The Poverty of Ideas.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.