Business Day Weekender, Johannesburg, 2006/09/30 12:00:00 AM

‘You can’t have two Xhosas lead Cosatu’

Vukani Mde

AND so I had a chat with a senior ANC leader at the end of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) congress. We were discussing the contested position of president, for which Willie Madisha faced a spirited challenge from Cosatu’s Eastern Cape chairman Zanoxolo Wayile. Said ANC leader was rooting (perhaps even canvassing) for Madisha.

Well and good. But when I asked him to explain his support for Madisha, an interesting conversation resulted. He couldn’t support Wayile because of the basic principle involved. Fine, what’s the principle, I asked.

“Well, you see you can’t have two Xhosas leading Cosatu. Vavi’s Xhosa, you can’t have a Xhosa president as well,” he explained.

I was somewhat taken aback. Even if one truly and sincerely believes in the rightness of this position (to foster diversity, let’s say), I didn’t see, for the life of me, how this could be thought of as a “principle”.

But of course in the context of the divided congress it made sense. What took place during campaigning represented one of the lowest points in alliance politics.

Whatever the merits of the case for retaining Madisha in his position, the ethnic politicking that was done on his behalf (even if not necessarily directly by himself) took the federation back two decades. The end result was that what beat back Wayile’s challenge was not an alliance of Cosatu affiliates, but an alliance of provinces. Now for administrative purposes Cosatu is divided into eight regions roughly corresponding to the country’s nine provinces, but these are not autonomous political entities. At the 2006 congress they attained political agency: “Limpopo is building an alliance to save Madisha against the NUM and Sadtu Eastern Cape,” or “KwaZulu-Natal will vote with Eastern Cape, Gauteng is divided and Western Cape is vacillating.” My personal favourite (coming not from one of the delegates but a senior journalist “covering” the congress): “We, the Sotho provinces, will not allow Vavi and his like to take over Cosatu”.

I pointed out the ANC leader, whom I’ve traditionally regarded as one of the most progressive figures in the ruling alliance, that he had involved himself in the propagation of regressive ethnic politics.

“So what?,” he replied. “It worked in our favour today”. But will it always? He could only shrug when that question was posed.


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