Africa

Zuma ready for ANC battle

Jacob Zuma

As the leaders of South Africa's governing party gather this week, they are preparing to do battle with two opposing factions - though of course it is not being billed that way.

The African National Congress National General Council in Durban will review the party's progress in delivering key policy pledges such as education, health, unemployment and rural development.

But when trade union federation Cosatu slams the party it is allied with for having "failed" to improve terrible levels of inequality in South Africa, it is clear that the focus will be more than simple policy.

It is about leadership too.

Bloodbath

The party faithful arrive in Durban with memories of the party's last major meeting still fresh in their minds.

The meeting in the town of Polokwane was the setting for a political bloodbath when then President Thabo Mbeki was sacked as ANC leader three years ago and replaced by Jacob Zuma.

Durban will not be the same - it is not the forum where new leaders are elected - but commentators are seeing it as a marker of things to come, when in two years' time now President Zuma may try to seek a second term.

The president, described as a populist by some, has tried to steer a course between two factions in the party.

On the one side there are unions represented by the powerful Cosatu. It boasts some two million members.

On the other, the interests of big business, black economic empowerment entrepreneurs and figures such as Tokyo Sexwale and ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

In recent weeks, the trade unions have shown their frustration with the ANC government with a national strike by civil servants.

Image caption The unions played a key role in Jacob Zuma's rise to power

The public sector pay dispute has been put to one side as this conference gets under way, but the main issues have still not been resolved.

The ANC government has maintained there is no money available for above-inflation pay rises, and the trade unions are feeling sore because of a sense of betrayal.

They feel that President Zuma has continued the pro-market policies of Mr Mbeki and not accommodated labour's demands.

What is all the more galling for them is that President Zuma was "their man" during the leadership battle in Polokwane and now he has let them down.

"I'm not expecting to be paid the same as a minister," says teacher Lydia Xaba who has eight years' teaching experience.

She joined the recent pay strike.

"I deserve more - I went to school for it, I trained for it. I must be respected for it," she says.

"You read things in the newspaper which suggest the government has the money, so it is high time that the government looks into uplifting people equally, not just the chosen few."

It is a view that gains traction among unionists and non-unionists alike and among people who feel that the ruling party is looking after the elites at the top.

Cosatu Secretary-General Zwelenzima Vavi has gone one step further, calling the relationship with the ANC "dysfunctional" and criticising corruption within the ruling party which he says has left it disconnected from its roots.

Although the criticism has been toned down in the lead-up to the Durban conference, one thing is clear, President Zuma can no longer be 100% sure that the unions will back him for a second term.

'Misled'

So it comes as no surprise that ahead of the Durban conference, President Zuma has looked like he is in campaigning mode - going on walkabouts in KwaZulu-Natal province, trawling for new ANC members.

So is the marriage between the ANC, the South African Communist Party and their trade union allies on the rocks?

Image caption Jacob Zuma (l) was seen as a "man of the people", unlike Thabo Mbeki (r)

It is certainly looking wobbly but is not yet at the stage of "irretrievable breakdown".

The party has been here before, and though few think that the unions will completely sever their ties with the ANC, many believe that the ruling party is having to re-examine its vision and remind itself who it really is.

"The ANC is a nationalist party, not a socialist one," asserts Moeletsi Mbeki, the brother of the former president and a prominent political scientist.

Mr Mbeki, an outspoken critic of some of his brother's policies, believes the ANC is at a crossroads.

"The unions gave the impression to their members that the ANC is a socialist party but in fact the working class has been misled. Now they've discovered this and it has come as a huge shock," he says.

Stories of corruption, political patronage, and the awarding of lucrative contracts behind closed doors have done little to win the ANC leadership friends among either the unions or its business wing.

The impressively politically literate South African public are trying to assess what all this means.

Although the core support for the ANC comes from the black unemployed poor - represented by neither unions nor business - this political tussle has repercussions for the whole country.

In many ways the fight between the unionists and the nationalists, and traditionalists and modernists, is a proxy for a struggle to control the leadership.

The ANC commands a 65%-majority in the national parliament and with a weak opposition, it has enormous power to shape policy.

Mud-slinging

In his opening speech, President Zuma condemned the current power struggle and tried to placate both sides.

He is a pragmatist at heart and also a political survivor.

"I think the battle for the president of the ANC will become a sideshow," argues Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg.

He says the real battle will be for other top jobs within the ANC that become vacant in 2012.

These include the posts of vice-president and secretary general, which key personalities are already positioning themselves for.

"If Jacob Zuma wants a second term, he will get it unless he antagonises all sides or he becomes too much of an embarrassment," says Mr Habib.

There will no doubt be mud-slinging, "robust debate" and whispered deals during the conference.

But whether President Zuma emerges unscathed from the whole experience remains in doubt.

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