Foreign Policy Blogs

The Tripartite Alliance

Over the course of an interview in the Mail & Guardian Zwelinzima Vavi, the secretary general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions asserted that his organization wants to re-establish itself as a more powerful player within the African National Congress’ tripartite alliance of COSATU, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC itself. As to whether COSATU will separate itself from the ANC, at least for now, that does not seem to be on the table. vavi argues:

The ANC is a force of the left and my personal opinion is that it would be a mistake for the left to try and create their own new party. The ANC is the primary force; let's fix it. There is no guarantee that a new left force will act any differently from the ANC. All left political parties that get into government are always shifting to the right, because in government the demands and realities that you have to deal with are different.

I have long argued that the most viable path to an alternative to the ANC would come from a fracturing of the tripartite alliance, with COSATU and the ANC stepping out and forming their own left wing party. In June 2006, for example, I wrote:

I have said it for years. The dominance of the African National Congress will not wane as the result of a challenge from the right. The days of the National Party and its inconsequential successors is past. There is room and a need for true conservatism (which I will then heartily oppose) in South Africa, but it cannot rise from the ashes of the Afrikaner Broederbond, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) or the Nats, new, old, gereformeerde or otherwise. The challenge, then, will come from the left. More accurately it will come as the result of a break in the tripartite alliance that makes up the ANC — the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). I am certainly not an original thinker on this point, but these are observations I have been making since 1997 so I feel some sense that my construction of the discussion, at least, is my own.

The reason one can envision such a break is because recently both COSATU and the SACP have been making noise indicating that they could, possibly, at some point, consider breaking fron the alliance and going forward on their own in the political waters. That it has taken this long, and that it might never come to pass, is testament to the hold that power has on any constituency that has it. Being in the ANC fold is a virtual guarantee of access, status, and viability — of, in essence, the concrete benefits of being in the catbird seat. COSATU and the SACP have always been second among equals, however, and this has long chafed the leadership of these organizations that, rightly, remind us of their vital role in the long liberation struggle. [. . .]

The SACP is antsy to push a socialist agenda. It is an agenda that, while it has some fruitful points, would, if implemented in toto, be an utter disaster in the one country that Africans across the continent simply cannot afford to go awry. COSATU rightly emphasizes the rights of workers, but like all unions is largely unconcerned with masses who live on the agricultural fringes and with those not within its ranks, which is to say, a majority of South Africans, a point that COSATU elides because to do otherwise would raise some uncomfortable questions.

South Africa has a parliamentary legislature that the ANC has dominated since 1994. I surmise that even after a break of the alliance the ANC will continue to do so. But its support levels will surely drop to or below where they were after the 1994 elections when the Nats and Inkatha Freedom Party, the one defunct the other irrelevant, drew support. This is to my mind a good thing. The ANC with too much support, which translates to too much power, frightens me. I’d like to think that South Africa is different from other African states, its leaders more sage, its democracy more stable, its juduciary and military more independent. But power is power, and when too much of it is consolodated for too long, such power becomes dangerous. Such a break would be especially good if it could be amicable — if COSATU and SACP can maintain an alliance on a large number of issues while pursuing their own course where there is divergence.

This is all by way of description — what I see happening — rather than prediction, though I have long held that in the long run the alliance would be untenable if the partners ultimately chose to care about more than simply maintaining their grip on the levers of control. It is a dynamic well worth watching in the weeks, months and years to come.

Despite Vavi's assertions, an eventual break seems the most likely path to a viable national opposition party. It has long been clear that COSATU in particular is both unhappy with the current state of the relationship and wants serious systemic change. self-interest will only keep COSATU in the fold for so long if the organization firmly believes that a change is necessary. In the long run, the internal dynamics of this longstanding alliance will have a significant impact on the future of South African politics.