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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.