South Africa: Arms corruption trial shakes ANC government

Trade unionists and youth should not support either ANC leadership factions

In the most sensational corruption trial since the African National Congress (ANC) came to power, Schabir Shaik, flamboyant businessman, financial advisor and close comrade of SA Deputy President, Jacob Zuma, was found guilty last week on two counts of fraud and one of corruption for making payments totalling R1.3m to Zuma, and soliciting a bribe on the Deputy President’s behalf of R500,000 per annum from a French arms company in exchange for protection against investigations into corruption in the arms deal. The three day judgement, delivered by former Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) Justice Minister, and retired judge Hillary Squires, destroyed the business empire of Shaik, who now faces the confiscation of the assets of his R50m business empire and a minimum of 15 years in jail. Much more importantly, the judge, in finding the evidence of corruption "overwhelming", has also ruined the political career of Zuma, who benefited from Schaik’s generosity and offered his political influence in Shaik’s business dealings, in return. It has plunged the ANC and Tripartite Alliance into its deepest crisis since the end of the apartheid regime.

South Africa President Mbeki is under relentless pressure to dismiss Zuma if the latter does not resign. But Zuma is standing firm, arguing that he was not on trial and has the support of the ANC Youth League, the Young Communist League, the South African Communist Party, and the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, denounced the trial as a political trial to thwart Zuma’s accession to the presidency – when Mbeki’s second term expires in 2009 – engineered by sinister forces and has warned of "devastating consequences" should the ANC fail to protect Zuma.

The following leader article (slightly edited) appears in the current edition of Izwi la Basebenzi (newspaper of the Democratic Socialist Movement, DSM – the CWI in South Africa) and was published before the judgment was handed down.

Arms corruption trial shakes ANC government

In April 2004, the ANC won the biggest of three election victories, after universal suffrage was introduced. Contrary to most political commentators, Izwi la Basebenzi pointed out at the time, that the ANC’s majority was based only on those who voted in the elections – 15 million (m) out of 27m. 12m people who had the right to vote did not do so. 5m were unregistered and 7m did not vote at all. The ANC’s 11m plus votes represented only 38% of the electorate. The 12m who did not vote outnumbered those who voted ANC. The ANC’s overwhelming majority, therefore, represented the biggest slice of a smaller cake. It did not at all mean support for the ANC’s economic policies. Many voted ANC mainly because there was no alternative.

Two opposing social currents

We further pointed out that the election results show that there are two social currents in society and which are flowing in opposite directions; the working class to the left, and the capitalists and their allies to the right. The events of the last year have confirmed our analysis. Less than 12 months after a crushing election victory, the Shaik corruption trial has opened the deepest divisions in the ANC since it came to power. Given this, further importance is attached to protests against unaffordable tuition fees broke at tertiary level and at education institutions throughout the country – protests that are now an annual event. Widespread social discontent is now expressing itself in protests throughout the country against poor delivery of basic services. Free State township protests last year were even described by one newspaper as the “September Insurrection"

The social unrest shows that the “economic prosperity” about which the government and big business are patting each other on the back, is benefiting only a small minority – the white capitalist ruling class, the aspirant black capitalist class and sections of the middle class. The overwhelming majority of people are mere spectators to this prosperity.

These events indicate the growing polarisation of the classes. The speed with which the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer is increasing. The explosive development of a rich black elite joining in the self-enrichment that has for so long been enjoyed exclusively by the white capitalists, is the most visible expression of the chasm that is opening up between the classes. It has served merely to sharpen the sense of exclusion amongst the working class majority.

Class polarisation causes ANC divisions

This class polarisation explains the divisions that have opened in the ANC. The ANC’s overwhelming election victory has not led to ‘unity’ in the country. Instead, it has accelerated class polarisation and, consequently, social and political turmoil in society, in the Tripartite Alliance (Congress of South African Trade Unions, South African Communist Party and the African National Congress – Cosatu, SACP and the ANC), in the SACP and in the ANC. Because there is no viable political alternative to the ANC, the social and political conflict is expressing itself in the ANC itself.

The clearest manifestation of the divisions in the ANC is the fall-out from the arms corruption trial of Schabir Shaik. It has divided the Tripartite Alliance into two camps – pro-Mbeki (President) and pro-Zuma (Vice President) – jostling for power and influence within the ANC, in particular.

It might never be known with certainty whether the Mbeki-faction engineered the trial to block the path of Deputy–President Jacob Zuma to the presidency, and to lay the basis for a third term in office for Thabo Mbeki. Whatever the truth of this claim, the fact is that this trial has now become about the future of the ANC itself —it is far more about the succession to the presidency than about corruption.

Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi’s statement, in which he said that Zuma’s rise to the presidency is as unstoppable as a tsunami, has fanned the flames even more. Other unions, like the mine workers’ unions, Numsa and NUM, criticised Vavi for giving the impression that his personal opinion was the official Cosatu position. But Zuma appears to enjoy substantial support amongst certain sections of the leadership and shop stewards within Cosatu, even though there has been no official debate on the subject within its affiliates.

What position should the working class take on this unseemly spectacle?

Whilst we accept that Vavi is entitled to his opinion, and also has the right to campaign for it, the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM-CWI) believes that it is entirely incorrect to approach the question on the basis of “for or against Zuma”. Regardless of the outcome of the arms corruption trial, what Shaik has openly admitted, in fact boasted about, is that he supports Zuma financially and that Zuma has intervened on his behalf in his business dealings. Whatever the legal definition of corruption, and whatever difficulties the state may have in satisfying its strict requirements to secure a conviction, Shaik expected Zuma to lend him political support in his business dealings and Zuma obliged. In our book, that constitutes corruption, even if no money exchanged hands.

Arms Deal is corrupt

Our position on the arms deal is that it should be condemned because it is a criminal waste of resources. Whilst millions are unemployed, homeless, excluded from education and health, and dying from HIV/Aids, as the roll out of anti-retrovirals is sabotaged by the government, it was seen fit to spend what is now estimated to be over R50bn on arms. As many analysts have pointed out, South Africa faces no military threat. The arms deal was entered into to provide big business in South Africa and abroad, and the black elite, with opportunities for self-enrichment.

It is in this political sense, far more than financially, the arms deal is corrupt and has tainted both ANC disputing factions. That is the real issue, and not who greased whose palm to get a share of the fabulous wealth that the arms deal has made possible.

Nor are there any differences of principle politically between Mbeki and Zuma. Both were architects of the arms deal. Both came vigorously to its defence when allegations of corruption first surfaced. Both played a central role in crippling the investigation into corruption from the onset. First, they ensured the exclusion of the Heath Special Investigations Unit from the probe. Then, they manipulated the parliamentary committee for the oversight of public accounts (Scopa) by removing the former head, ANC member, Andrew Feinstein, for insisting on an honest probe. Mbeki played the main role in censoring the Auditor General’s report, whilst the Zuma faction played the leading role in trying to discredit the former head of the ‘Scorpions’ [an elite police investigation unit], Bulelani Ngcuka, with the accusations that he was an apartheid spy. It was Zuma who manipulated the Public Protector into finding out that Ngcuka had brought his person and office into disrepute.

To support Zuma or Mbeki faction is to divide Cosatu

The danger in Vavi’s approach is that it will import the divisions in the ANC into Cosatu itself. What Cosatu should be campaigning for is the cancellation of the arms deal. The international arms industry is oiled by corruption. A French arms dealer, Alain Thetard, made the arrogant comment that he could not understand what all the fuss over bribes was about as this was normal practice in France.

South Africa’s involvement in the arms trade has already resulted in it dealing with some of the most corrupt and oppressive regimes in the world. Defence Minister Lekota’s response to such questionable dealings was that South Africa would not be able to sell arms to any country if they had to base arms deals on principles, such as not selling to regimes involved in wars and oppressing their own people. The answer to that problem is that it is better not to sell arms than to become complicit in repression!

The arms deal has opened deep and probably unbridgeable divisions in the ANC. The balance of forces between the two factions has swung wildly one way and then the other. The Zuma faction appears to have the upper hand at the moment, with the findings of the Public Protector followed by the resignation of Ngcuka. However, this could change, once again, depending on the findings of the judge.

ANC factional struggle will continue whatever the outcome of the Shaik Trial

In the meantime, the Mbeki-faction has suffered its own setback with Mbeki compelled to publicly make it clear he has no intention of seeking a third term as President. It became politically impossible to leave any room for doubt on this question in view of Mbeki’s own campaign for “good governance” on the African continent, as part of promoting Nepad [a programme for economic development in Africa]. In addition, the tide of opinion in South Africa has swung overwhelmingly against a third term.

However, the latest proposal from the Mbeki faction, that Mbeki be allowed to stay on as president of the ANC after his second term as president of the country comes to an end, is a recipe for even deeper divisions. Any person who becomes president of the country, while Mbeki remains president of the ANC, would either have to agree to be a ‘lame duck’ president, taking instructions from Mbeki, or would have to challenge his leadership, at every turn. If that individual were Zuma, he would not accept being dictated to from Luthuli House [ANC HQ]. Such a scenario has the potential to split the ANC.

The proposal to extend Mbeki’s term as ANC president would have the same disastrous consequences for the ANC nationally, as the separation of the premiership from the position of ANC chairperson in the provinces. Mbeki’s attempt to conceal his real aim – to centralise power in the hands of his faction under the pretext of promoting women [within the ANC]- will fail as spectacularly to overcome the divisions at the level of the presidency as it has in the Free State and Eastern Cape provinces whose premiers are held in open contempt. The very fact that there is speculation that the Free State Premier’s special adviser, Noby Ngomane, was assassinated, is an indication of how dangerously fraught the situation in the ANC has become.

William Mervin Gumede’s book ‘Thabo Mbeki and the battle for the soul of the ANC’, confirms what is widely known about Mbeki. In his rise to the top position in the ANC, he was ruthless in his manipulation of the different factions and structures of the ANC, to out-manouevre potential rivals both before and after he became president. The Shaik trial may well be yet another of Mbeki’s manoeuvres. No matter how the investigation into Zuma may have originated, it is inconceivable that it could have happened without Mbeki’s prior knowledge or consent.

The divisions in the ANC have already been sharpened by the HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe issues. These divisions are going to deepen in the next period. The onset of the economic crisis on the horizon for world capitalism will expose the shallowness of the current economic success and reverse even the gains of the middle class. As workers, students, youth and communities are left with no alternative but to resist the effects of retrenchments, exclusion from education, non-delivery of basic services, water and electricity cut-offs, and the HIV/Aid pandemic, the divisions in the ANC will deepen even more.

It is understandable that some Cosatu shop stewards and leaders are inclined to support Zuma. It is an indirect way of expressing opposition to Mbeki, who much more than any other ANC leader represents the neo–liberal face of capitalism, of privatisation, of the HIV/Aids pandemic, and the naked self-enrichment of BEE [Black Economic Empowerment Programme].

But those who support Zuma are making a serious mistake. There are no fundamental, political, ideological or class, differences between Mbeki and Zuma. As some shop stewards have pointed out, in all the clashes between Mbeki and Cosatu, not once has Zuma come out publicly to defend Cosatu. Nor is the issue about whether the Deputy President is capable of managing his personal finances. The issue facing Cosatu should be the economic policies and class character of the ANC. Cosatu should refrain from supporting Zuma, for the same reason that they should not support Mbeki – that they are leaders of a party that has become the conscious agent of capital. Over the past ten years, especially since Mbeki became President, the irreconcilable nature of the differences between the ANC, as the representative of the interests of big business and the aspirant black capitalist class, and the working class, on which Cosatu rests, have become more and more evident.

Workers should take Cosatu out of the Tripartite Alliance

At the same time, Cosatu’s inability to consistently fight for the interests of its membership, and the wider working class that have looked to it for leadership, has run into the obstacle of its continued membership of the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance. In every major battle, from privatisation to Gear [an economic programme], to the LRA [Labour Relations Act] and retrenchments, Cosatu has insisted, as it is currently doing on retrenchments in the mining and textile industries, that their protests are not against the ANC government but the private sector. In every single case, the battle was lost and Cosatu’s credibility undermined. Cosatu’s membership of the Tripartite Alliance has compelled the leadership to place their loyalties to the ANC above the interests of their members and of the working class. The betrayal of the public sector worker strike in September 2004 was only the latest example.

To support either faction in the ANC is to create the illusion that it is not yet clear what the class character of the ANC is. It is a myth that there is a trend in the ANC leadership that is closer to Cosatu and which could still win the battle for the soul of the ANC. The ANC conference voted to support Gear and privatisation and accepted the abandonment of the Freedom Charter and the RDP [Reconstruction and Development Programme], even though they were not even given the opportunity to debate or vote on issue that are central to what the ANC stand for.

Apart from being deeply embroiled in corruption, Zuma is a co-architect of the ANC’s neo-liberal policies – of Gear, privatisation and retrenchments. Under his presidency, the ANC will not change course. Cosatu should withdraw from the Tripartite Alliance and launch a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. That is the only way to preserve the unity of the working class and to solve the problems facing the working class.

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June 2005