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South Africa: ANC leaders attack COSATU

By John Haylett

November 5, 2010 -- Morning Star -- Relations between the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and sections of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) plumbed new depths this week following a union-initiated Civil Society conference.

The October 27 conference was organised by COSATU and human rights bodies Section 27 and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). More than 50 independent organisations took part, debating how to encourage community-based activism to achieve social justice and improve poor people's lives. [Read the declaration of the civil society conference. Read Zwelimzima Vavi's speech to the conference.]

So far so uncontroversial, but the organisers had agreed to make the conference non-party political, which meant that neither the ANC nor the South African Communist Party (SACP) were invited to take part.

The SACP didn't comment on this, but the ANC national working committee, which met on November 1, went bananas. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, who is also SACP chairperson and a former miners' union leader, suggested that the conference could be the first step in setting up something akin to Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change or Zambia's Movement for Multiparty Democracy. He warned that forming a civil society movement outside the tripartite (ANC-SACP-COSATU) alliance could be "interpreted as the initiation of regime change" in South Africa.

Mantashe recalled that, when the Congress of the People (COPE) splinter had broken away from the ANC, "we raised the consistent efforts made in the region by powerful international forces to weaken the liberation movements".

In response, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said: "I don't know why they are paranoid, but we do not regret the conference. There is no reason for the ANC to be upset."

Vavi explained that the new initiative would focus on delivery of government education, health and job creation programmes. "We are now getting a role for civil society to play in line with the ANC slogan, 'The people shall govern'," he added.

The COSATU leader stated categorically that "we are not an anti-ANC and anti-government coalition. We are not here to begin a process to form any political party, nor to advance the interest of any individual."

COSATU president Sidumo Dlamini added that the agenda was not "to weaken the democratic movement, the alliance or the government. On the contrary, it is meant to strengthen it. These organisations have learnt from their own struggles and victories about the benefits of working with the democratic government and to concurrently confront and challenge it when it cannot listen."

TAC chairperson Nonkosi Khumalo and Section 27 executive director Mark Heywood expressed their surprise at "the insinuations that the conference is part of a plot against the ANC".

They characterised the ANC national working committee attitude as "reminiscent of the paranoia of the [President Thabo] Mbeki era. It is a conduct that suggests the ANC, or some of the people who hide under its flag, have something to fear."

Vavi was, as ever, outspoken at the conference, returning to well-worn and, arguably, well-justified themes of corruption within leading ANC circles. He hammered "predators and hyenas", who were obsessed with amassing personal wealth at the expense of the poor.

Once again, this struck a raw nerve among some ANC leaders, not least Youth League president Julius Malema, who had been a guest at a lavish birthday party laid on by wealthy Johannesburg businessman Kenny Kunene at a nightclub he owns.

Half-naked young women, painted grey, were a feature of the party, which also involved one woman draped over a table where partygoers were invited to eat sushi from her bare stomach, in between quaffing Dom Perignon, Cristal and Moet & Chandon champagnes and Chivaz Regal whisky.

"It is the sight of these parties, where the elite display their wealth, often secured by questionable methods, that turns my stomach," said Vavi.

Kunene responded that, if Vavi cared so much for the poor, he should stop wearing "high-collar designer shirts", adding, "Why don't you sell your house and live in a shack?"

Malema accused Vavi of doing the opposition Democratic Alliance's work for it, insisting that there was nothing wrong with being a capitalist.

"They want you to remain poor and die poor and, once you've died, poor people will see that there is no need to join this organisation. We have no reason to apologise. We are young. We will never apologise for partying. It is our responsibility."

COSATU deputy president Zingiswa Losi took up the cudgels with Vavi against Kunene and Malema. "They condemn themselves out of their own mouths and have exposed to the world the rotten, immoral world in which these greedy capitalist exploiters live -- a decadent sewer of conspicuous consumption", she declared.

"These half-naked women are being treated as sex objects -- little more than party accessories, to decorate the room and provide some lewd enjoyment to the invited men, as they enjoyed their sushi, champagne and whisky."

ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said that leaders identified as corrupt at the civil society conference have been advised to seek legal redress, but this is unlikely to happen.

More likely is a further meeting of the tripartite alliance to paper over the cracks.

However, the way ahead, in light of tensions caused by ongoing government neoliberal policies, will probably witness an upsurge in union-supported grass-roots actions to prioritise social justice over self-enrichment.

[This article first appeared in the British daily Morning Star.]

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