Uncertain, rocky road ahead for South Africa

Looking ahead, South Africa seems to be in for a rocky — and perhaps momentous — period, both politically and on the labour front.

But there are so many variables in play that what the situation will be at this time next year is anybody’s guess.

Although it is more than a year away before the scheduled local government elections, it is already clear that political parties have their sights set on 2016. This could, in fact, be a decisive poll, especially for the governing ANC that faces strong electoral challenges in Gauteng and, most importantly, in the Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) metro.

According to unpublished surveys conducted by the ANC, there is a distinct chance that the party could lose control of both Johannesburg and NMB. Not to the Democratic Alliance, but to a coalition of opposition parties in which the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are likely to play a major role.

The big unknown is also the political grouping that may emerge after the proposed April conference to establish a “socialist movement” and the proposed founding conference of a United Front in June. Both these initiatives are being sponsored by the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa).

But Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim continues to insist that Numsa will not in any way transform itself into a political formation; it will remain a trade union, but will help facilitate — “be a catalyst” — in the creation of these political alternatives. However, will any emergent socialist movement be part of a united front and will any future united front stand candidates in the 2016 elections?

These are questions that should be resolved before the year is out.

A number of the groups associated with the united front and which attended the first meeting of this putative organisation, are also supportive of the EFF. Others see the EFF as essentially rightwing and Numsa has so far kept at arm’s length from Julius Malema and the red beret brigade.

However, whether together or alone, it seems likely that the ANC will face local government electoral challenges from these formations and others.

And, in NMB and the Eastern Cape more generally, there is also the impact of the United Democratic Movement (UDM) led by Bantubonke Holomisa whose reputation and outspoken anti-corruption stance could stand him in good stead.

Wider disillusionment with the Cosatu leadership, including the Eastern Cape breakaway from the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union, led by former president Thobile Ntola could also have an impact.

So it does seem likely that the ANC will suffer electoral setbacks in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape and not make any inroads into the Western Cape. Should this happen, it could spell the final death knell for the presidential tenure of President Jacob Zuma. On grounds of ill health, he could step down to make way for a caretaker president for the rest of his term.

Zuma has not been well and, for a period last year, appeared to lose a lot of weight and to look quite haggard. According to insiders at Luthuli House, this was a consequence of having changed his medication for a time. But although he now seems to have recovered, the swirls of controversy, in particular the upgrades to his Nkandla residence, have seen his popularity plummet

As a result, and especially following the assessment of the ANC’s local government election prospects, the knives are definitely out. The problem, however, is that, unlike 2008 and the dumping of President Thabo Mbeki, there is no clear successor. But there is certainly no shortage of aspirants for the top job.

The difficulty here is that with a multitude of wannabe presidents scrabbling to win support, the ANC could be still further damaged. A strong, steady hand in the caretaker role would be essential to maintain stability until, many in the leadership hope, a clear front runner emerges before the 2019 elections.

As a result, it has been quietly mooted — and seems most likely — that the “caretaker president” who stepped up in 2008 will do so again. Kgalema Motlanthe , a former trade unionist about whom there is not even a whiff of scandal, is the man. Both factions within Cosatu are unlikely to have any problem with him at the helm, but whether this will ensure overall stability is moot.

The prospect of Cosatu fragmenting should also not be ruled out. It now seems likely that if and when a special national congress is held and the broadly anti Zuma faction wins a majority, the decision will not be accepted by pro-Zuma unions and factions that tend to be linked closely with the SA Communist Party.

Such a development would compound the political problems for any president or government at a time when little seems likely to improve on the economic front. And that means ongoing tension between unions and employers — including government — with more job losses on the cards, especially in the mining sector.

Despite the lower oil price and consequent lowering of fuel costs, the overall cost of living, especially for those families on the lowest end of the scale has not fallen.

And what this means in human terms is shocking and should give added impetus to the labour movement’s demand for a “decent level” of minimum wages and an adequate social welfare net. But a fragmented and weakened movement may have much less influence.