JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - It often attracts the epithet “powerful”, but on the evidence of this week’s triennial conference, the only truly powerful thing about the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is its rhetoric.
For four days, leaders of the union body that played a key role in the anti-apartheid struggle berated their red-shirted comrades about the perils of bourgeois capitalism and the need to “build working class power in all sites of power”.
Yet its stamp on policy is more noticeable by its absence, even though COSATU sees new president Jacob Zuma as “its man”, having backed him in a 2007 internal putsch against the avowedly pro-business Thabo Mbeki as head of the ruling ANC.
With an election not due again until 2014, analysts say the ANC is only likely to pay lip-service to its junior partner in an alliance that also includes the Communist Party, another anti-apartheid actor with an identity crisis 15 years after the end of white minority rule.
“The ANC are ‘open to the debate’ -- that is often the terminology used -- but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the policy shifts that are demanded by the unions,” said Mike Davies of political risk group Eurasia.
“None of it has really moved the agenda.”
South Africa’s steady economic evolution since apartheid from mining and manufacturing to business services -- finance and real estate now account for 20 percent of GDP, the biggest slice -- also points to waning long-term union influence.
For his speech on Monday, Zuma wore a bright red Mao-style jacket and opened with the obligatory smattering of ‘comrades’.
But his remarks made no reference to COSATU policy demands such as nationalising the central bank and ending its remit to bring inflation into a 3-6 percent target range.
COSATU, a federation whose member unions claim 1.9 million members, says the policy has stifled growth and cost jobs.
Zuma even went so far as to condemn violence during strikes in July over municipal workers’ pay and shoddy public services in black townships that have seen little improvement since the advent of democracy in 1994.
Even though individual unions in the public sector and mining did manage to secure above-inflation wage hikes in the June-August wage negotiations, COSATU attempts to derail policies it thinks put investors above workers have not got far.
In May, a judge dismissed its 11th-hour bid to block the $10 billion listing of mobile phone firm Vodacom.
Similarly, its joy at the removal of Trevor Manuel as finance minister after April’s election was short-lived as the labour movement’s arch-nemesis emerged at the helm of a new economic planning ministry that may make him even more powerful.
South Africans of all hues are now asking whether the presence of unions and communists in a ruling alliance born of the liberation fight is an anachronism that has run its course.
“The tripartite alliance was of course forged out of necessity in exile. Life was hard and unity of all formations was paramount if the struggle against apartheid was to succeed,” commentator Barney Mthombothi wrote in the Financial Mail.
“But circumstances have changed,” he said. “The ANC is in power, waging a different struggle. Should it tend to the needs of the voters who elected it to power, or the whims of unelected communist and union oligarchs?”
There are also question marks over the leftists’ dedication to ideology, with Communist Party boss and Education Minister Blade Nzimande in hot water for his choice of official car -- a brand new 1.1 million rand BMW, according to local newspapers.
The COSATU meeting also threw up many quirks that sat uncomfortably with hammers, sickles and Trotsky tee-shirts.
Besides daily raffles for big-screen televisions, one of its biggest bank-rollers was mining mogul Patrice Motsepe, South Africa’s first black billionaire.
Central bank governor Tito Mboweni, the unions’ public enemy number two behind Manuel, was so unfazed by COSATU’s bark he went to the meeting hours after refusing to cut interest rates.
“I was told there was a lot of criticism, but they were friendly,” he told an accountants’ dinner on Tuesday. “I enjoyed myself and I‘m going back tomorrow morning.”