Zuma’s final battle for control of the ANC

The power struggle between President Zuma and trade union leader Zwelinzima Vavi is a prelude to a battle for wider control of the political landscape.

 

Today, Julius Malema appears in court. Today the once-feared former ANC youth leader cuts a sorry figure. His assets have been seized; his unfinished luxury home in the exclusive Johannesburg suburb of Sandton is up for sale.

Malema and his associates are accused of fraud, corruption, money-laundering, and racketeering. Few believe he would be facing these charges had he not challenged the South African President, Jacob Zuma. It was a confrontation Zuma won, and Malema was expelled from the ANC.

Had this not taken place he – like Zuma himself – would almost certainly been able to use South Africa’s complex legal system to bog down, postpone and put off any trial indefinitely. Stripped of his political immunity, Malema must now take his chances.

The removal of Julius Malema left President Zuma with only one critic of real standing within his movement – the leader of the Cosatu trade union movement, Zwelinzima Vavi. The unions, resurrected in the Seventies after their suppression in the Sixties, are part of a formal alliance with the ANC and the Communist Party.

But the relationship has become increasingly fraught. Vavi is a free spirit, not cowed by Jacob Zuma and – with the support of the nearly two million-strong trade unions – a force to be reckoned with. It was with the backing of the unions and the Communist Party that Zuma defeated former President Thabo Mbeki in December 2007, to take the presidency of the ANC and then the country.

The Zuma–Vavi–Communist Party axis soon began falling apart. Vavi resisted attempts to bring him into government, criticising the Communist Party general secretary, Blade Nzimande, for taking up ministerial office. Relations deteriorated further when Vavi laid into the Communist Party leader for ordering a R1.1 million (£80,000) 7-series BMW as his official government vehicle

Since then tensions between Vavi and his allies steadily increased.  Now there are attempts to remove him from the union leadership. But Vavi is fighting back, with the help of the influential metalworkers union, Numsa. A statement published by the metalworkers earlier this month came to his aid.

“These forces inside and outside Cosatu who miserably failed in their endeavours to have general secretary comrade Vavi dethroned in the 2012 Cosatu national congress ... now want to go behind the backs of their members, who demonstrated confidence in the leadership of comrade Vavi, want to use the smaller leadership of the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) to stage a coup,” said Numsa. “As Numsa, we refuse to allow Cosatu to be used by greedy and power-hungry individuals who have lust for positions of power in the broad liberation movement and the state.”

Vavi has used his links with a range of civil society organisations to bolster his position. On 18 April  he issued a statement on behalf of 39 civil society groups, announcing a mass mobilisation against corruption and abuse of power. The organisations, meeting as the National Anti-Corruption Forum, declared that “corruption is the biggest threat to our young democracy” and that the forum will therefore be developing a “concrete detailed platform” to mobilise civil society. 

But Vavi’s enemies have hit back. They have laid their own charges against the Cosatu general secretary, alleging that he himself was involved in corrupt practices. They accuse Vavi of deliberately undervaluing a Cosatu owned building, suggesting that members of Vavi’s family benefitted from its sale – a charge he strongly denies. Among his critics are the police union, which made the complaint

The tension between the unions and the wider alliance has long been predicted. During the Fifties the progressive union movement, Sactu, came under such ANC dominance that it became a battering ram in the party’s confrontation with the apartheid government. Sactu fell apart and when the unions were re-formed in the mid Seventies activists were determined this should not be repeated. While they supported the fight for liberation they guarded their independence. In a key statement in 1982 the union movement outlined their concerns.

"It is, therefore, essential that workers must strive to build their own powerful and effective organisation even whilst they are part of the wider popular struggle. This organisation is necessary to protect worker interests and to ensure that the popular movement is not hijacked by elements who will in the end have no option but to turn against their worker supporters." 

Exactly those ‘elements’ have now taken control of large sections of the ANC, just as the unions predicted. They run the party for their own ends, using the resources of the state to feather their nests. The resulting tensions with their union allies are inevitable.

These developments come as electioneering for next year’s general election has begun. The ANC – weakened by internal conflicts and general public apathy – desperately needs the organisational strength of the Cosatu unions to bolster its campaign. But before that can get under way Zuma and his allies are determined to remove the one obstacle that stands in the way of their complete domination of the ANC-led alliance. Settling their scores with Vavi is a prelude to their wider control of the political landscape. 

 

Zuma and Vavi in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.