01/05/2017 15:54 BST | Updated 01/05/2017 16:14 BST

May Day 2017: Zuma's Alliance Smashed To Smithereens

President Jacob Zuma was chased away from Cosatu's Workers' Day celebrations. The alliance that carried him to victory at Polokwane has been smashed.

Gallo Images
Happier days: President Jacob Zuma during Cosatu's Workers' Day rally at the Botshabelo stadium in Botshabelo outside Bloemfontein, South Africa on May 1, 2012. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Conrad Bornman)


President Jacob Zuma's speech at Cosatu's main Workers' Day rally cancelled.

Speaker Baleka Mbete, also national chairperson of the African National Congress (ANC), booed at Cosatu's Durban rally.

And Jessie Duarte, deputy secretary-general of the governing party, drowned out by singing when she tried to deliver a message at Cosatu's rally in Polokwane.

In Johannesburg Bheki Ntshalitshali, Cosatu's general-secretary, was cheered when he said Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa should ascend to the party presidency in December.

Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the ANC, stood by his side.

And in Mpumalanga, the selfsame Ramaphosa gave his May Day speech at Cosatu's event in Hectorspruit, receiving a warm welcome from workers there.

The alliance of the wounded – cobbled together to eject then-President Thabo Mbeki at Polokwane in 2007 – was finally smashed to smithereens on Monday.

Make no mistake: Zuma, the "workers' champion" who was carried to victory by Cosatu, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the leagues, was chased away on Monday. He was forced to sit next to SACP leader Blade Nzimande, listening to anti-Zuma chants and singing, unable to deliver his speech and compelled to sound the retreat in his presidential motorcade, with eight bodyguards jogging next to his black BMW as the he snaked his way out of the sad event at Bloemfontein's Loch Logan.

It seems like yesterday when Nzimande, Cosatu's then-general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and their hangers-on danced and jived on a stage outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court, shrilly shouting that the "head of the snake" in Mbeki needed to be chopped off, while supporters burned T-shirts with Mbeki's face on it.

Those days are over, the Tripartite Alliance now exists only in name and both Cosatu and the SACP having called for Zuma to step aside, Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini's limp-wristed attempts to protect Zuma notwithstanding.

The alliance was born to unite the liberation movement ahead of the negotiation process in the 1980's and 1990's, and continued after the first democratic election in 1994. The first cracks in the unit appeared even before Mbeki was elected as president in 1999, with both Cosatu and SACP heavily critical of the democratic government's conservative fiscal and economic consolidation policies, dubbed the "1996 Class Project".

Mbeki largely strong-armed his way through alliance politics during his term of office, earning the ire of Nzimande and later Vavi, who played leading roles to elevate Zuma to the national leadership. But whilst Nzimande revelled in his new role as Cabinet minister and all the perks that came with it, Vavi refused a position in Cabinet and on the ANC's national executive committee (NEC), saying Cosatu will have to continue in its role as the party's "internal opposition".

When in 2010 he cautioned against the emergence of a "predator state" where corruption and cronyism flourished, fed by a political elite who plundered the public purse for its own, narrow gains, he was castigated by the ANC's leadership and accused of disloyalty.

Discord in the alliance however took root and Vavi was eventually expelled from Cosatu, accused of dodgy dealings with the sale of the trade union federation's headquarters and an illicit office romance. But the problems identified by Vavi – and others, like former Cosatu President Willie Madisha – did not disappear, and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), led by the firebrand Irvin Jim, left Cosatu a couple of years after Vavi was forced out.

Alliance summits spluttered and ground to a halt. Zuma neutered the ANC youth league, the women's league became his biggest fan and Kebby Maphatsoe whipped the veterans into line.

The federation remained a loyal Zuma province, with Dlamini taking over the reins as president and using every opportunity to pledge his and Cosatu's fealty to Zuma – and earning criticism that Cosatu has been reduced to nothing but the ANC's "labour desk" and a "lapdog federation".

Nzimande and the SACP meanwhile also started developing the semblance of a spine, the party having made a decision that Zuma must step aside before the elective conference in December and Solly Mapaila, the second deputy general-secretary, emerging as the strongest anti-Zuma voice among the communists.

The symbolism however of Zuma being prevented to take the podium at Cosatu's most important event of the year, an event he has addressed without fail for years and which is supposed to showcase the unity of the alliance, cannot be underplayed.

After Zuma cut his losses and left in his 12-vehicle presidential motorcade, heavily armed and helmeted members of the police's tactical response unit by his side and music with the words "votela i-ANC" booming over the speakers, Ace Magashule, Free State premier and Zuma hatchet-man, told eNCA's Thulasizwe Simelane those that say Zuma must go "have no constituency" and that it was a small group of rabble-rousers that prevented Zuma from speaking.

Well, that small group of rabble-rousers with no constituency have now joined Cosatu's central executive committee, the SACP's politburo, ANC veterans, a section of the ANC's NEC, the Save South Africa campaign, the Freedom Movement and every single opposition party in calling for the Zuma era to be cut short.

The president and his acolytes are struggling to hold everything together.