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?

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.