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.