The heckling of South African President Jacob Zuma on May Day this year is in many ways a turning point for South African politics, and particularly for Zuma himself.

Workers hold placards during a May Day rally in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Monday, May 1, 2017. South African President Jacob Zuma was jeered by labor unionists and his speech was cancelled after scuffles broke out between his supporters and workers.
Workers hold placards during a May Day rally in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Monday, May 1, 2017. South African President Jacob Zuma was jeered by labor unionists and his speech was cancelled after scuffles broke out between his supporters and workers. (TRT World and Agencies)

On Monday the 1st of May, a day celebrated by many around the world as Workers Day, South African President Jacob Zuma was given a shock ruder than any he had received before.

Workers belonging to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), refused to let him speak at their main rally. They booed him, while people at the same event who support the president showed their anger with those booing. In the end, COSATU leaders cancelled the planned speeches, and the event ended early.

As leader of the African National Congress (ANC) Zuma has technically been governing South Africa representing a group called the tripartite alliance. This alliance is made up of the ANC itself, COSATU, and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The three organisations worked together very closely during the liberation struggle against Apartheid, and then agreed to work together to govern the country after democracy came in 1994.

While the ANC is the party in government, it gives up some of its seats in Parliament to members of COSATU and the SACP, and both organisations have senior members as ministers in Zuma's cabinet. At the same time, they expect to be consulted by Zuma before making big decisions.

At around midnight on the last night of March this year, Zuma made the biggest reshuffle to his cabinet in this term. Ten ministers were moved. But the main issue was Pravin Gordhan, who had been the Minister of Finance. Gordhan had become a symbol against what is referred to in South Africa as "state capture", a bid by those who are corrupt to capture the state.

Zuma's relationship with a group of influential businessmen known as "the Gupta family" in South Africa has led to weighty claims being made that they have the power to influence cabinet appointments. Zuma's appointment of Malusi Gigaba to replace Gordhan appeared to strengthen those who believe the Guptas, have "captured" the state, through their relationship with Zuma.

In the hours after the reshuffle, the SACP called on Zuma to resign, and said they would work towards removing him. COSATU initially appeared more divided on the issue, but several days later followed the SACP and said they believed "Zuma was no longer the right person to lead and unite the movement".

Despite that, COSATU followed tradition in inviting the ANC to send a leader to address its rally, and the ANC responded by following its tradition of sending its leader, Zuma. Several unions belonging to COSATU then let it be known that they believed he should not attend. In the end, Zuma went anyway, and members of those unions booed him.

The significance of this is massive. It is the first time in the history of the alliance that an ANC leader has been prevented from speaking at an event like this. It is has never happened before, despite other tensions in the past. Perhaps more importantly, while Zuma has sometimes arranged for his opponents to be treated in this way, it has never happened to Zuma. This means that his critics and opponents in the alliance are feeling stronger than they ever have before.

In the days after the removal of Gordhan, civil society and opposition parties arranged massive marches in protest against Zuma. His response was to say that they showed that "racism still exists" in South African society. Race is still a hugely divisive issue in South Africa, and he was clearly saying that it was white people who had arranged the marches.

Zuma's supporters have also tried to claim that these marches had a very middle-class flavour, which feeds into his posture as being a leader "for the poor". But COSATU's members are nearly all black and are all either working-class or poor. This means that the cards Zuma has used in the past to deal with criticism against him, no longer work.

The other consequence of being booed by COSATU members is that it shows the huge divisions in the ANC. Many COSATU members are also members of the ANC, and have voting powers through ANC branches.

The ANC is holding an election to replace Zuma as leader in December. He is clearly supporting his ex-wife, former African Union Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Those who support him, almost uniformly support her.

This action by workers on May Day shows that there is going to be opposition to her, and that these people will almost certainly support her main rival, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. The fact that workers were prepared to publicly boo Zuma in this way shows that they believe they have the power to make sure Ramaphosa can win, and not Dlamini-Zuma.

This event has also cast into sharp relief one of the other major tensions in the ANC. Generally speaking it is people from the more rural provinces who tend to support Zuma and Dlamini-Zuma, while those in urban areas are more likely to oppose them, and support Ramaphosa. COSATU members are generally from urban areas. No matter what happens in December, it is likely that the ANC is going to find it difficult to manage the different interests of people across this divide.

This raises the spectre of another problem for the ANC. One of the major questions being asked ahead of its December conference is whether in fact that party as we know it will survive, or whether it will split, or in some unlikely scenarios, even collapse entirely.

We now know that both sides, those for and against Zuma, are prepared to boo and disrupt events. Which means it is possible they are both prepared to disrupt proceedings during an ANC conference. And that makes it more likely that that conference could mark an end to the party in its current form.

The situation within the ANC is now more complex and more unpredictable than it has been at any point since 1994. Zuma's opponents are growing bolder. The actions of COSATU members on May Day now show us that it is almost impossible to say what will happen next, or who will be the leader of the ANC come December.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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