With the exception of the African National Congress (ANC), there’s probably no better known political body in South Africa than the tripartite alliance. Bringing together the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the alliance forms the cornerstone of the government’s power.
The relationship is an unusual one that’s not seen in many other governments. The ANC holds a majority in the South African parliament, while the SACP and Cosatu have chosen never to contest the ruling party in the national elections, presumably as a result of the allegiance that exists between the three organisations. That said, the SACP and Cosatu do put candidates forward under the ANC banner and have members who hold senior positions within the ANC. The three organisations also often have very public disagreements, and yet the alliance still stands. So, very obviously separate, but still very intertwined organisations.
But how did this unique threesome come to be?
Officially the tripartite alliance was formed in 1990 after the three parties reached an agreement to work together as the Revolutionary Alliance, but the ties that bind the organisations go back a good many years before then. In June of 1987 Joe Slovo, then General Secretary of the SACP, spoke of the shared history that bound the ANC and SACP together:
To be true to history, we must concede that there have been difficulties as well as triumphs along our path, as, traversing many decades, our organisations have converged towards a shared strategy of struggle. Ours is not merely a paper alliance, created at conference tables and formalised through the signing of documents and representing only an agreement of leaders. Our alliance is a living organism that has grown out of struggle….
Within our revolutionary alliance each organisation has a distinct and vital role to play. A correct understanding of these roles, and respect for their boundaries has ensured the survival and consolidation of our cooperation and unity (World Marxist Review, Volume 30, number 6, June 1987)
There doesn’t seem to be one single version of events though that explains the formation of the relationship. Some articles refer to the Congress Alliance as the start of it all, others make mention of the Three Doctors Pact as having had an influence – Yusuf Dadoo was a Communist and Alfred Xuma was the leader leader of the ANC – but there may be another, rather simple explanation: a shared office space.
Located at number 2 Saville Street, Durban, Lakhani Chambers offered a relatively safe environment for anti-apartheid activists to meet. It sometimes played host to members of the ruling party. In July 1959 SB Bourquin, Durban’s Director of Bantu Administration, called at the office of Moses Mabhida, Deputy President of the Natal African National Congress, in an attempt to address the political unrest in Durban. But, as home to the ANC, the SACP and the NIC (Natal Indian Congress), Lakhani Chambers was more often the site of slightly more discreet meetings. The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) also chose Lakhani Chambers as its base when it formed in March 1955 . Many years later, in 1990, SACTU would make way for the newly formed Cosatu, with a number of SACTU leaders joining the now dominant worker’s union.
And so perhaps it is the case that having shared an office space in Durban all those years ago, and doubtless many conversations regarding the future of South Africa, today we have this rather unusual political arrangement. It may not have been the only driving force, but it seems logical that those beginning years in Lakhani Chambers, laid the foundation for the tripartite alliance that we see today.