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.