In a year of turning points, the booing of President Jacob Zuma by some parts of Cosatu, and the subsequent decision by the federation’s leadership to simply cancel all of the planned National May Day rally speeches on Monday, is hugely significant. It is the first time Zuma has been booed outside of Gauteng. It is the first time Zuma has been booed at an Alliance event. And it is the first time Zuma, or any sitting President since 1994, has been prevented from speaking at a public rally. This could be a turning point, not just for Zuma, and not just for Cosatu, but for the ANC itself. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
The writing had been on the wall for several days before the rally. Last week letters addressed to Cosatu from Nehawu and the Communication Workers Union magically found their way into the public domain. In the letters, the unions indicated that they believed it would be inconsistent with Cosatu’s resolution that Zuma should step down as the SA President for him to still address the traditional May Day rally. Later, the municipal workers of Samwu and the teachers of Sadtu joined them. The identity of these unions was important. Nehawu and Sadtu are two of Cosatu’s biggest unions in terms of membership. This makes it difficult to push them around politically. But in a rally situation, it also makes it difficult for them to be outnumbered. They knew that they could bring in the numbers of people they would need to make their point.
You have to ask why, under these circumstances, Zuma would force the issue and go to a place where he clearly wasn’t wanted. He would know what could happen. He’s been booed twice before. Once, of course, during the Nelson Mandela memorial service in 2013, and then again, at the same FNB Stadium, during a Bafana Bafana game. He could not have enjoyed either occasion. But more than that, they would have been politically embarrassing. It takes people in numbers to boo successfully; a few people here and there would not have made an impact. Without the safety of these numbers, it would not work. And a public booing, particularly a spontaneous one, is a strong indication of discontent among the people you are are supposed to lead.
This must have meant that a race started over the last few days to out-organise the unions critical of Zuma’s involvement in Monday’s rally. One wonders how much time and effort Free State Premier and ANC leader Ace Magashula put in over the last few days.
You would have to ask at this stage why Zuma decided to attend in the first place. Perhaps Magashula and Co thought they had pulled it off, maybe they thought these unions wouldn’t go ahead and actually do it. There is even, for the more conspiratorial among us, a possibility that Zuma wanted to go and wanted to be booed. Because he would know that in the longer run Cosatu would be one of the most organised and difficult obstacles to any path he may have to total and longer-term power. Should he really have those dictatorial instincts that his critics claim he has, in the end, it would be organised labour that could organise long and massive protests against him. What happened on Monday will surely damage Cosatu, perhaps even in the long term. For him then, the longer run plan may have been to allow this to happen. Perhaps. Perhaps he has simply decided he would not be pushed around at any cost.
It is important also to realise that what we saw on Monday, that looked like members of Cosatu who oppose Zuma shouting against other members of Cosatu who support him, might not have been a true reflection of what happened. It seems entirely plausible that many of the people who support Zuma were not so much Cosatu members as they were ANC members bused in by Magashula and his cohorts. In other words, the images of these inter-Cosatu divisions may not necessarily be a true representation of reality on the ground.
In terms of the fallout from the booing itself, one of the biggest problems facing Zuma now is that his usual cards will not work here. Since last year’s local elections Zuma has attempted to claim that protests and criticism against him have been inspired by racism. A subtext to this is also that it is the middle classes who are against him, that his real constituency, the rural poor (who by definition in this most racialised of societies are black) are who he is trying to help. Monday changed all that. This was working-class people, who cannot by any stretch of the imagination be classed as any of his usual suspects.
It is hard to underestimate the power of this Mayday rejection. Cosatu were one of the biggest factors in his overall victory at Polokwane in 2007, a crucial part of the Zunami that swept him into power. This very public rejection of him, and what he came to represent since 2007, by this fundamental constituency may show how desperately hollow and fragile his support actually is.
If poor workers don’t support him (and we already know that minorities and the middle class do not), then who does?
It also means that Zuma may have to reply to the merits of the claims against him, instead of labelling those who criticise him. Wish him luck with that, he will definitely need it.
From their side, the implications for Cosatu are also incredibly important. What happened on Monday could well speed up the process of fracture that started with the expulsion of metalworkers union Numsa and then the removal of Zwelinzima Vavi as general secretary. Was it a point of no return?
Some unions might disagree with the way Zuma was treated on Monday. Members of those unions may personally agree or disagree on the issue as well, while members of the unions that did boo him may also have differing positions. In other words, this could be a split in Cosatu as a federation, but also a split within the unions that are still members of Cosatu.
The first order of business in this process is likely to be the future of its president, S’dumo Dlamini. He is now likely to face heavy censure, and perhaps be removed from his position, after his public posture, both during this event, and during the Zuma birthday celebration, where he was conspicuous in his support. Dlamini’s moves obviously fly in the face of that Cosatu resolution saying Zuma must leave office. It doesn’t take understanding of advanced political maths to see that Dlamini may struggle to keep his job. And if he goes, he will be the second Cosatu president to lose his job over Zuma: Willie Madisha was forced out for a completely opposite sin: he did not support Zuma. How ironic. And along the way of course, Zwelinzima Vavi was also forced out of the general secretary position over exactly the same issue. He may well now feel that the rest of Cosatu has caught up to him.
Just to consider that is to comprehend how much damage Zuma has done to Cosatu over the years.
However, the more pressing implication of what happened on Monday may actually have very little to do with Cosatu. Up until this point it was always Zuma’s enemies or rivals who had been booed. If you go all the way back to the booing of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in 2005, right through to the disruption of the memorial service for Ahmed Kathrada in Durban a month ago, one thing is glaringly obvious. It is never Zuma or his proxies who have been on the receiving end (apart from the two incidents in Gauteng). This meant that the ANC’s December conference could actually have been fairly smooth, if the Zuma camp were in the ascendency, because they would not disrupt proceedings.
Now the anti-Zuma camp, within the alliance, has shown that it will disrupt too. It’s thrown real elbow. This could be important, because it raises the chances of serious tension, perhaps even physical, at the both ANC’s conferences this year, the December one in particular. Put simply, the stakes have been raised, and Blade Nzimande’s warning that the ANC could implode has just become more likely to pass.
What happened on Monday shows how deep the divisions over Zuma are. But they also show how far he will go to retain power, and how far his opponents will go. It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again: we are in new territory here. The structure that has dominated our politics for the last 20 years is breaking apart right in front of us.
It is not pleasant to watch.
It is dangerous for the entire country.
And it is likely to get worse. Much worse. DM
Photo: A file photograph showing South Africa President Jacob Zuma addressing the crowd during his 75th birthday celebrations held by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, 12 April 2017. Reports on 01 May 2017 state that Zuma was forced to abandoned a speech at a May Day rally in Bloemfontein after he was booed and scuffles erupted between Zuma supporters and his opponents. EPA/CORNELL TUKIRI
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall