The deputy president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was sacked in June after his financial adviser Schabir Shaik was found guilty of corruption. The case has become a huge issue, with many in the trade union movement demanding that the charges be dropped.
The evidence that Jacob Zuma had a corrupt relationship with Schabir Shaik is virtually unassailable.
And, yes, Zuma is an opportunist who never opposed the ANC’s neo-liberalism. Doubtless some of his support is from people who joined the first gravy train and await his patronage express.
So why does Zuma have so much popular support? At the ANC general council seven out of nine regions rejected the leadership position. Cosatu central committee agreed, against the leaders, that the charges be dropped. The main reason is clear — Zuma is not president Thabo Mbeki.
About 8.4 million people are without jobs — roughly three million more than in 1994. Frustration and anger have been reflected in a countrywide wave of militant protests and in bitter disillusionment with Mbeki.
The difference between the two was small. Zuma was friendly where Mbeki was harsh. But the more Mbeki’s coterie attacked Zuma, the more he appeared worthy of support.
There is another consideration. Finding Zuma guilty without a court defence may have been an error of judgement, or, and this seems more likely, it was part of a concerted effort to stop him becoming president. Either way, it was seen as an unreasonable attack on a friend of the workers.
One might also think that Zuma’s corruption is bad, but in terms of its impact on the working class, not nearly as devastating as Mbeki’s policies.
But the reason why Zuma became Cosatu’s chosen alternative also has much to do with the political weakness of the union federation and the Communist Party.
Their commitment to the alliance with the ANC means they have not developed their own political alternative. Had they done so, they would not have been dependent on Zuma.
However sooner or later — sooner I suspect — workers will become disappointed with Zuma and look for new leadership. There are already signs of other alternatives emerging.
For Cosatu leaders there is a real danger that as Zuma becomes discredited, so will they, with very negative implications for the working class as a whole.
It’s one thing to defend Zuma against the state’s attacks, quite another to encourage illusions in his ability to solve workers’ problems.
In the present circumstances Cosatu should be promoting local crisis committees.
These would enable shop stewards to unite workers and the jobless around struggles for housing, services, employment and decent pay. Although they would mobilise to defend Zuma, they would also provide a basis for developing a political alternative to him and to Mbeki.