Opinion  :: Columns  :: Jottings from Johannesburg


Between stability and labour
Peter van der Merwe
Published: 26-SEP-05

Johannesburg - South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) would sooner gargle with wasps than admit to a crisis of confidence in the party’s leadership.

However, recent events have exposed gaping cracks in its once-unified tripartite alliance with the SA Communist Party and giant trade union federation Cosatu.

Although the three parties have publicly attempted to paper over their differences after a recent crisis summit, insiders say the meeting actually highlighted the unprecedented divisions within the ANC-led alliance.

Some commentators see the sacking of Deputy President Jacob Zuma earlier this year – after being named in court as being part of shady goings-on surrounding the country’s controversial arms deal - as the cause of the rifts.

That’s an overly simplistic assessment.

But there’s no doubting that Zuma’s indictment and pending trial have served to highlight some fundamental differences within the once-cosy ruling troika.

The simmering discontent burst into the public domain last month, when Cosatu made a bizarre call on President Thabo Mbeki to halt the Zuma trial – after previously asking for Zuma to have his day in court.

This astonishing disregard of the rule of law has tainted the once-respected labour body’s proud name.

However, the underlying issue is that there is a growing groundswell of ordinary South Africans who see the unceremonious way in which Zuma was dumped as a personification of the emergence of a new, affluent ANC, where the leaders live in mansions far from their grassroots supporters and are above local concerns and needs.

To them, Zuma is the freedom fighter who rose through the ranks, and represents the “old”, human ANC which cared more for the people than their own bank balances.

Several alliance leaders are convinced that the criminal charges against Zuma are no more than the result of a political conspiracy.

Apart from Cosatu, which represents hundreds of thousands of workers, the pro-Zuma faction includes the ANC Youth League and the South African Students Congress (Sasco), which accused the ANC’s president and secretary general of “being economical with the truth”.

Strong words indeed.

The ANC has played down the extent of the divisions, but it is not fooling anyone. Analysts say the inability of the ANC to speak coherently on the Zuma fallout is indicative of deep fissures in the top structures of the party.

“It’s very difficult for the ANC to take a clear public position because they are divided at the highest level of leadership,” independent political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said recently.

Democracy at work?

On the one hand, the end of the ruling alliance could be just the thing South Africa’s young democracy needs.

As political analyst Dele Olejede wrote in The Sunday Times, it would be a step towards a normal society in South Africa: “An alliance structured for the struggle against apartheid is not fi t for the task of managing the new society.”

On the other, the fallout from the strife, and a bitter succession battle, could be extremely damaging to South Africa’s image across the globe, with wary investors watching for the faintest sign of political instability.

There is already talk of turmoil and making the country ungovernable by the unions. This may well just be posturing, says Matshiqi, but it could be a sign that people are prepared to behave in ways that may be dangerous for the country.

The thought of hundreds of thousands of workers rampaging through the streets of South Africa’s cities is enough to make any self-respecting financier choke on his cornflakes.

The image of Zimbabwe’s crazed pogrom against its own people is already uncomfortably close to home, and the West hardly needs any excuses to turn its back on yet another self-destructive African basket case.

Perhaps that is putting it a little strongly.

However, the reality is that South Africa’s nascent economic revival is still in its baby shoes, and for all its astonishing progress in the past few years, it needs all the positive reinforcement it can get if the country is to create sorely-needed jobs and quash the spectre of grinding poverty which lurks in the shadows.

What the country needs now, more than ever, is decisive action by President Mbeki. This is not the time for quiet diplomacy, but firm leadership. That may well include telling Cosatu to control itself, as the consequences of civil strife would hurt the workers more than anyone.

Ultimately, though, it is a fight South Africa cannot afford to fight.

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