The collective shock when labour federation Cosatu announced it was cancelling all speeches, including one by Jacob Zuma, at its annual May Day rally in Bloemfontein has brought into sharp focus the dissent over the president.
Political analysts argue that the boos and jeers Zuma received from Cosatu members suggest that a pro-Zuma candidate could lose the ANC the 2019 election. They say it also indicates that Cosatu members have now joined movements such as Save South Africa and opposition parties, who have led protests against Zuma since he sacked former finance minister Pravin Gordhan.
Susan Booysen, a political analyst from the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance, said the booing at the rally signified the loss of one of the ANC’s most powerful mobilisers. Cosatu has traditionally used its “organisational mobilisation capacity” to help the ANC win previous elections, she said.
“The ANC has been extremely reliant on that. It is now a resource that has evaporated by all indications,” Booysen said.
“This resistance against Zuma is really from the ANC heartland. You cannot say it is just white or middle class people protesting. Here are significant voices from the working class making that clear,” Booysen said.
ANC national chairperson Baleka Mbete, national executive committee member Naledi Pandor and deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte were booed in various provinces where May Day rallies were held. Booysen says Zuma loyalists may find themselves increasingly cast out if they continue to support the president.
“It showed that there is not much hope for Zuma’s torchbearers,” Booysen said.
“Once their own political futures are at stake, they will start looking at their own survival – and then legions shift.”
One pressing question is why Cosatu allowed Zuma on stage given the unpopular sentiment towards him. Earlier, the Mail & Guardian reported that the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) had asked Cosatu to prevent Zuma from addressing workers at the May Day rally.
Booysen believes that political pressure from the top may have forced Cosatu’s hand. The federation has backed Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, and not former African Union Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, to become the ANC’s next president.
“There was probably high level pressure on some in Cosatu to allow this opportunity. I think it was so important for Zuma to try to get on the stage and grab the opportunity. It would’ve been a major coup for Zuma to pull it off and they really tried to take the risk,” Booysen said.
But Ralph Mathekga, research director at the Mapungubwe Institute of Strategic Reflection, said that was Cosatu’s way of vocalising who they want as their ANC presidential candidate.
“It’s not really about what they think Ramaphosa has to offer; it’s all about just rejecting Zuma. It’s because the workers are actually picking a side in relation to the forthcoming election conference of the ANC,” said Mathekga.
“It’s not just the booing of Zuma, it’s the booing of Zuma and his allies and those people who are known to associate with him.”
Mathekga argues, though, that the heckling resembled a similar tactic used when Zuma was vying for his spot as ANC presidential candidate. He said it had little to do with what Zuma could offer but signified the rejection of Thabo Mbeki.
Zuma would later replace Mbeki as the party’s president at its national conference at Polokwane in 2007. Mathekga also said that the divide seen during Monday’s rally shows how out of touch the ANC is with its trade unions.
“When a trade union which is supposed to be an ally is taking this kind of position and even humiliating the ANC president, it shows that the ANC is no longer coherent. It also sends a message that Cosatu has doubt regarding the current leadership of the ANC,” said Mathekga.
Ebrahim Fakir, director of programmes at Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute, was not surprised by how the Cosatu rally turned out and believes others shouldn’t be either.
“I mean, the booing … frankly I don’t know why anyone is surprised. Why would they be? They [Cosatu] have a standing resolution, they would like this guy [Zuma] to voluntarily go. Just basic internal dynamics. It’s very clear that they don’t want to him to come because they said so,” said Fakir.
He also believed that while there is evident disagreement within the ANC, it doesn’t mean the ANC is divided. Fakir points out that people within the media criticised the ANC leadership under former president Thabo Mbeki as being “a centralised power with no internal democracy” while President Zuma’s presidency has been termed “divided” when internal debates become more apparent. Ultimately, he argues, it’s created a double standard.
“Every time there is a difference in opinion, people say the ANC is divided. If they weren’t divided then they would say ANC is not democratic,” said Fakir.
“The fact that it is happening means there is internal democracy happening.”