THABO MBEKI, the president of South Africa, fired deputy president Jacob Zuma, the country’s second most powerful politician, last week.
This move has deepened divisions inside the Tripartite Alliance—made up of the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the Communist Party—that has ruled the country since the fall of apartheid.
Media pundits are heralding this as a “defining moment for South African democracy”.
In the run-up to the G8 summit Mbeki is seeking to reassure international investors and business leaders that South Africa is tough on corruption.
This has a hollow ring to it as it has come a few weeks after the ANC prevented the publication of a newspaper story into the “Oilgate” scandal. A state-led company is alleged to have paid money into ANC funds.
Mbeki fired Zuma after he was implicated in a high profile trial. Zuma’s former financial adviser Schabir Shaik, whose relationship with Zuma was described by the judge as “generally corrupt”, was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for fraud and corruption.
The decision has not been widely accepted. Anger surfaced at Youth Day celebrations commemorating the Soweto uprisings in 1976 with the singing of anti-Mbeki slogans. An Mbeki-appointed ANC provincial premier was pelted with stones.
The support for Zuma among leaders of the ANC allies and rank and file party members is seen as a challenge to Mbeki’s authority.
There is a growing unease with Mbeki at the grassroots level of the party. Two weeks ago the person he appointed as premier of the Western Cape lost his leadership of the provincial ANC, despite senior party leaders being sent to sway the vote.
Zuma and the left inside the alliance insist his sacking is part of a political plot to prevent him from becoming the next president.
While Zuma has never shown any dissent towards government policy, in Cosatu he is dubbed as “the workers’ friend”. Mbeki is popularly seen as a cold-hearted technocrat.
For the time being Zuma’s sacking seems like a defeat for the left in the alliance who had gambled on him becoming president in 2009. Yet the race for the presidency of the ANC is far from over.
Socialists should not ignore the power struggles inside the ANC, but Zuma is no radical. The left in the alliance has relied too much on inner-party manoeuvrings instead of mass action to solve its increasingly isolated position.
In a country with 40 percent unemployment and growing inequality the left should be focusing on linking up with the wave of township protests that have swept the country since September 2004.
These people should be pulled into a mass campaign against job losses and unemployment.
The social unrest and the “trench warfare” against Mbeki’s government appointees, do not mean the alliance is about to split. But this is the most testing period for the ANC leadership since it introduced neo-liberal policies in June 1996.
With next week’s ANC policy conference debating the proposed introduction of flexible labour legislation, and a national strike planed by Cosatu, the jury is still out on Thabo Mbeki’s government.
Peter Dwyer is a socialist activist in Durban