“The alliance is dysfunctional…”

Not, for once, a reference to the alliance that operates mediates our semi-detached polit-bureau – although some similarities may be apparent.  This time it’s South Africa, where the BBC reports on the threatened escalation of strike action by Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi.

Some one million civil servants are already on strike but Cosatu’s total affiliated membership is double that.

Mr Vavi said work would also halt in the key mining and manufacturing industries, while unions representing the police and the military have already said they will join in the stoppage.

“Today, on 26 August, all Cosatu unions will be organising all their workers to issue notices to employers that they will be joining the public sector strike,” he said, according to the South African Press Agency (Sapa).

“We will not be defeated,” he told cheering protesters in Johannesburg.

Cosatu is officially an ally of the governing African National Congress but Mr Vavi warned that their alliance was now “dysfunctional”.

An Observer report by Alex Duval Smith provides some background detail

Last time the alliance reached implosion point, in 2008, the ANC managed to circumscribe the damage, Soviet-style, by ousting the right-leaning Thabo Mbeki and replacing him with the power-hungry Zuma. This time, in the absence of a policy-neutral frontman like Zuma who tells everyone what they want to hear, the entire alliance is threatened, and with it the government of the country. In the run-up to next year’s local government elections, Vavi says the unions will not, as in the past, “give the ANC a blank cheque” by guaranteeing their support.

This week Vavi plans to play his trump card by drawing in the private sector and creating “total shutdown” of the economy. Some 320,000 mineworkers are on standby to down tools on Thursday. The only other meaningful sector in a country with 40% unemployment is the car industry, which is already partially on strike. Some of its 70,000 members marched through the posh Johannesburg suburb of Sandton yesterday.

Vavi’s move is intended to give the heebie-jeebies to the man who really runs South Africa. The de facto prime minister Trevor Manuel, who carries the innocuous title of minister in the presidency in charge of the national planning commission, has maintained the market-friendly course he put in place as finance minister under Mbeki. It brought a World Cup to the country, but it did not change lives. In the past week, when Zuma was in China, Manuel remained in the country but was as quiet as the president.

So worried is Zuma that he has, somewhat clumsily, announced that he will not attend the UN General Assembly at the end of September because it clashes with the ANC national general council policy review conference.

After coming to power against no meaningful national opposition in the April 2009 elections, the ANC under Zuma relied on the firebrand youth league leader, Julius Malema. His role was to pacify the people with rhetoric, including calls for the nationalisation of mines. More interested in immediate delivery, the people did not buy it. Crucially, neither did Cosatu. Amid scandals and calls for new legislation to muzzle the media, Malema increasing looks merely like one of the many “tenderpreneurs”, denounced by Vavi as the ANC’s “predator society”.

And on that “new legislation to muzzle the media”,  an Observer editorial tries appealing to the ANC’s better nature… seriously.

The threats to the media – one journalist was recently arrested over a story he had not even published – smack of diversionary tactics when the social and economic imperatives are so pressing. The ANC, admired by democrats around the world, is surely bigger and better than that. Having welcomed the praise of the international community for South Africa’s marvellous hosting of the World Cup, it should now heed criticism of actions that are squandering the goodwill.

The Irish Times‘ Bill Corcoran provided a good analysis of the proposed legislation in Friday’s paper

In many ways the ANC has a point when it comes to the diversity of ownership of the media, as it remains predominately white-owned, and those in control of some newspapers appear reluctant to invest sufficiently in their products. All but a few newsrooms are staffed predominately by a skeletal staff of young inexperienced reporters. Daily publications rarely produce more than a few pages of news in each edition.

However, what the ANC has failed to do so far as part of this “much-needed debate” is explain why the draft Protection of Information Bill contains clauses that appear to give individuals in high places carte blanche to shield themselves and others from journalistic scrutiny. Nor has it cited examples of the many ordinary South Africans who have been defamed by an over-exuberant press, and let down in a subsequent ruling by the press ombudsman.

But even a cursory look at the relationship between many senior ANC members and the media in the recent past would set off alarm bells in relation to why these proposals may have been tabled. Corruption and incompetence have been the bane of the ruling party and local government over the past 10 years, and the media has not been shy about bringing it to the attention of the public. Numerous high-placed public servants and politicians have been exposed or scrutinised by the media because of allegations or proof of corruption contained in official documents that were leaked.

President Zuma and former police chief Jackie Selebi, to name but two, have been caught in the glare of the media spotlight following accusations of corruption, with the latter convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail earlier this month.

If the ANC’s current proposals had been in place, neither of these stories would have seen the light of day.

Not that I’d want to give anyone here any ideas…

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