Zuma’s final battle for control of the ANC

The power struggle between President Zuma and trade union leader Zwelinzima Vavi is a prelude to a battle for wider control of the political landscape.

 

Today, Julius Malema appears in court. Today the once-feared former ANC youth leader cuts a sorry figure. His assets have been seized; his unfinished luxury home in the exclusive Johannesburg suburb of Sandton is up for sale.

Malema and his associates are accused of fraud, corruption, money-laundering, and racketeering. Few believe he would be facing these charges had he not challenged the South African President, Jacob Zuma. It was a confrontation Zuma won, and Malema was expelled from the ANC.

Had this not taken place he – like Zuma himself – would almost certainly been able to use South Africa’s complex legal system to bog down, postpone and put off any trial indefinitely. Stripped of his political immunity, Malema must now take his chances.

The removal of Julius Malema left President Zuma with only one critic of real standing within his movement – the leader of the Cosatu trade union movement, Zwelinzima Vavi. The unions, resurrected in the Seventies after their suppression in the Sixties, are part of a formal alliance with the ANC and the Communist Party.

But the relationship has become increasingly fraught. Vavi is a free spirit, not cowed by Jacob Zuma and – with the support of the nearly two million-strong trade unions – a force to be reckoned with. It was with the backing of the unions and the Communist Party that Zuma defeated former President Thabo Mbeki in December 2007, to take the presidency of the ANC and then the country.

The Zuma–Vavi–Communist Party axis soon began falling apart. Vavi resisted attempts to bring him into government, criticising the Communist Party general secretary, Blade Nzimande, for taking up ministerial office. Relations deteriorated further when Vavi laid into the Communist Party leader for ordering a R1.1 million (£80,000) 7-series BMW as his official government vehicle

Since then tensions between Vavi and his allies steadily increased.  Now there are attempts to remove him from the union leadership. But Vavi is fighting back, with the help of the influential metalworkers union, Numsa. A statement published by the metalworkers earlier this month came to his aid.

“These forces inside and outside Cosatu who miserably failed in their endeavours to have general secretary comrade Vavi dethroned in the 2012 Cosatu national congress ... now want to go behind the backs of their members, who demonstrated confidence in the leadership of comrade Vavi, want to use the smaller leadership of the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) to stage a coup,” said Numsa. “As Numsa, we refuse to allow Cosatu to be used by greedy and power-hungry individuals who have lust for positions of power in the broad liberation movement and the state.”

Vavi has used his links with a range of civil society organisations to bolster his position. On 18 April  he issued a statement on behalf of 39 civil society groups, announcing a mass mobilisation against corruption and abuse of power. The organisations, meeting as the National Anti-Corruption Forum, declared that “corruption is the biggest threat to our young democracy” and that the forum will therefore be developing a “concrete detailed platform” to mobilise civil society. 

But Vavi’s enemies have hit back. They have laid their own charges against the Cosatu general secretary, alleging that he himself was involved in corrupt practices. They accuse Vavi of deliberately undervaluing a Cosatu owned building, suggesting that members of Vavi’s family benefitted from its sale – a charge he strongly denies. Among his critics are the police union, which made the complaint

The tension between the unions and the wider alliance has long been predicted. During the Fifties the progressive union movement, Sactu, came under such ANC dominance that it became a battering ram in the party’s confrontation with the apartheid government. Sactu fell apart and when the unions were re-formed in the mid Seventies activists were determined this should not be repeated. While they supported the fight for liberation they guarded their independence. In a key statement in 1982 the union movement outlined their concerns.

"It is, therefore, essential that workers must strive to build their own powerful and effective organisation even whilst they are part of the wider popular struggle. This organisation is necessary to protect worker interests and to ensure that the popular movement is not hijacked by elements who will in the end have no option but to turn against their worker supporters." 

Exactly those ‘elements’ have now taken control of large sections of the ANC, just as the unions predicted. They run the party for their own ends, using the resources of the state to feather their nests. The resulting tensions with their union allies are inevitable.

These developments come as electioneering for next year’s general election has begun. The ANC – weakened by internal conflicts and general public apathy – desperately needs the organisational strength of the Cosatu unions to bolster its campaign. But before that can get under way Zuma and his allies are determined to remove the one obstacle that stands in the way of their complete domination of the ANC-led alliance. Settling their scores with Vavi is a prelude to their wider control of the political landscape. 

 

Zuma and Vavi in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser