THE need to call an early elective conference seems to be the consensus in the ANC across the three factions that are in play at the moment.
But listening to secretary-general Gwede Mantashe speak on Tuesday was a stark reminder that the last time the congress movement found itself at this particular juncture was not that long ago, and the outcome was not a particularly happy one.
The similarities are stark — labour federation Cosatu was in the midst of a bitter factional fight in which its leaders where pitted against each other. This had followed a change in trajectory by the federation when some of its leaders decided to throw the organisation’s support behind Jacob Zuma ahead of the Polokwane conference, when it sacrificed principle for expedience by choosing a tsunami of change whose effect was unknown over the interests of workers, its core constituency.
I recall the kind of influence labour leaders had in Polokwane back then — it was immense. Now, they are voices in the wind.
The battle that started in Cosatu shortly after 2012 pitted its president against its general secretary.
The stark choice faced by the federation was whether to convene a special congress at which to hold fresh elections in the midst of the turmoil, or to sit it out and hope for the best.
The faction aligned to its then president was the dominant one, and it used its majority in the federation’s highest decision-making body, the central executive committee, to its advantage.
In doing so, it took a far-reaching decision that has had a major effect on the labour organisation’s identity — and its very existence.
That was a difficult time for the federation and its leaders, and Cosatu emerged from the fight battered and broken, so much so that its contribution to the ANC’s 2016 election campaign was barely felt. Both factions lost in the end. A weaker Cosatu emerged and those on the margins of the federation remained there until they were purged from it.
The ANC now finds itself in a similar position. It faced a critical decision ahead of the local government polls — whether to rid itself of the “elephant in the room”. In the Cosatu battle, this was used as a reference to the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and Zwelinzima Vavi; in the ANC it refers to Zuma.
The latter is also now pitted against ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe — and, to a lesser degree, its deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa — as well as a small core loyalist group that recognises the real danger of the party losing power in 2019.
The popular call is for an early conference, but Mantashe’s instinct is to avoid a fight if it is set to be an all-or-nothing one, with “blood on the floor”. The same line was used to dissuade Cosatu from holding a special conference to elect new leaders. The same tired logic. The same refrain that change is to be feared and shunned.
In Cosatu, however, the fear came from uncertainty over whether Vavi held the sway he used to.
By the time the conference was held, he had been undermined so effectively that the federation he led for 13 years shunned him.
This time there is a distinct fear for the “organisation”, or what is left of it. But still, an early conference seems to be the only option for the party after its election drubbing.
Ironically, it is the faction that is opposed to Mantashe that is the strongest proponent of this view, with him squarely in their sights. This was clear from the ANC Youth League’s briefing last week, when it called for an early conference and the appointment of a new leadership by consensus, a chapter straight out of the post-2012 Cosatu handbook.
The call for “consensus” rather than an election is evidence of the weaknesses of this proposition. The youth league and Cosatu are bedfellows in the internal democracy stakes, and if the ANC was to mimic Cosatu’s strategies the result would be the same: a lame duck, weak organisation at risk of tearing itself apart.
• Marrian is political editor