Death by a thou­sand pricks may await an SACP head­ing the way of cou­pling por­cu­pines


One of the clum­si­est po­lit­i­cal ar­range­ments that ever ex­isted was the coali­tion part­ner­ship in KwaZulu-Natal be­tween the ANC and IFP. The two were forced into govern­ment to­gether in 1994 and 1999 by po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stance rather than de­sire, and it was a deeply dys­func­tional mar­riage. There was lit­tle they could agree on.

Cab­i­net meet­ings were tense and of­ten woolly; leg­isla­tive sit­tings were sham­bolic.

There was the added mess of the govern­ment hav­ing to func­tion be­tween two cap­i­tals, Pi­eter­mar­itzburg and Ulundi, be­cause nei­ther party would back down on their pre­ferred choice.

For­mer KwaZulu-Natal ANC leader S’bu Nde­bele was quoted dur­ing one rather volatile pe­riod as say­ing: “A re­la­tion­ship of coali­tion part­ners is like that of por­cu­pines mak­ing love — ever so care­ful. What is meant as a gen­tle touch may turn out to be a fa­tal prick.”

Af­ter this week’s Cosatu-led na­tional strike, one has to won­der where the al­liance re­la­tion­ship is head­ing, par­tic­u­larly as the SACP con­tem­plates con­test­ing elec­tions as an in­de­pen­dent party.

There is no ra­tio­nal ex­pla­na­tion for why the al­liance still ex­ists, con­sid­er­ing it has been dys­func­tional and toxic for years.

ANC, SACP and Cosatu lead­ers of­ten pon­tif­i­cate about their strong his­tor­i­cal bonds, their col­lec­tive strength in nav­i­gat­ing po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges and how they shaped pol­icy to­gether. In pri­vate they ad­mit the al­liance is ut­terly use­less. The ANC has needed Cosatu for sup­port dur­ing its elec­tion cam­paigns and to keep up the pre­tence of a con­nec­tion to the work­ing class. The SACP went from be­ing Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s great­est de­fender to among his harsh­est crit­ics.

The ANC and SACP par­tic­i­pated in weak­en­ing Cosatu and driv­ing out its big­gest af­fil­i­ate, the met­al­work­ers’ union Numsa.

SACP and Cosatu cab­i­net min­is­ters are of­ten caught up in con­tra­dic­tions be­tween their govern­ment work and their or­gan­i­sa­tions’ po­si­tions.

Now the ANC re­fuses to give its al­lies the time of day, avoid­ing meet­ings where con­tentious is­sues might be dis­cussed.

The SACP and Cosatu have a vested in­ter­est in the ANC suc­ces­sion bat­tle. They as­sume — as they mis­tak­enly did in 2007 when they backed Zuma — that their pre­ferred can­di­date, Cyril Ramaphosa, will em­brace them and ex­punge the strains in the al­liance. This week’s na­tional shut­down was os­ten­si­bly against cor­rup­tion and state cap­ture, and a show of strength against Zuma’s fac­tion. It was also a ma­noeu­vre to demon­strate that the al­lies could make life dif­fi­cult for the pres­i­dent’s pre­ferred suc­ces­sor, Nkosazana DlaminiZuma.

But what would hap­pen if she won the lead­er­ship bat­tle in De­cem­ber?

Would the SACP fi­nally take the plunge and go it alone, as its re­la­tion­ship with the ANC would then surely be wholly un­ten­able?

Some within the SACP claim that a de­ci­sion to con­test elec­tions as a sep­a­rate en­tity would not nec­es­sar­ily sig­nal the end of the al­liance. But it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how the SACP would cam­paign with­out be­ing ag­gres­sively crit­i­cal of the ANC to draw vot­ers away.

It is un­likely that the ANC would tol­er­ate be­ing wal­loped by an al­liance part­ner want­ing to take its vot­ers.

Would Cosatu throw its sup­port be­hind the SACP — or join its pres­i­dent, S’dumo Dlamini, in eat­ing cake at the new ANC pres­i­dent’s birth­day par­ties? And what would hap­pen af­ter the 2019 elec­tions? Would the SACP en­ter into a coali­tion with the ANC, sit in the op­po­si­tion benches, or part­ner with other par­ties against its (for­mer) ally?

If it did en­ter into a coali­tion, it could be an­other bonk­ing­por­cu­pines sit­u­a­tion and the SACP might suf­fer a “fa­tal prick” — although some be­lieve it al­ready has.

In Ger­many, the So­cial Demo­cratic Party de­cided to with­draw from the coali­tion govern­ment with An­gela Merkel’s Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union af­ter tak­ing a knock in last week­end’s elec­tions.

The So­cial Democrats’ pres­ence in the cab­i­net had made it in­dis­tin­guish­able from the lead part­ner in the coali­tion, yet it could not claim the suc­cesses of Merkel’s govern­ment. Its left-lean­ing poli­cies had to be sac­ri­ficed in a cen­tre-right govern­ment.

Its crit­i­cism of Merkel’s track record made its elec­tion cam­paign look hyp­o­crit­i­cal and it lost cred­i­bil­ity with its sup­port base. This should be a les­son for the SACP. The party and Cosatu are bank­ing on a Ramaphosa win in De­cem­ber, hop­ing this will re­store the hey­day of the al­liance.

But there is no guar­an­tee that Ramaphosa will win or that the ANC will stay in power.

While the SACP has been threat­en­ing to con­test elec­tions on its own for many years, it could in fact be forced out of the al­liance.

If the SACP and Cosatu are al­ready sur­ren­der­ing their prin­ci­ples to keep the al­liance go­ing, one can only imag­ine what would hap­pen in a coali­tion ar­range­ment with a hos­tile ANC or a dis­parate group of op­po­si­tion par­ties.

Por­cu­pines mak­ing love might be prefer­able to watch than a govern­ment with Mmusi Maimane, Julius Malema and Blade Nzimande forced to work to­gether.

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