Fresh from a march that exposed the deep divisions between the unions and the ruling party, Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said yesterday that the African National Congress (ANC) needed to pull up its socks or risk being overthrown.
Mr Vavi’s criticism of the ANC suggests that his relationship with the party and President Jacob Zuma is severely strained.
He was addressing a gathering organised by the South African Democratic Teachers Union in East London, where he decried the "bad management" that led to the crisis in the Eastern Cape’s public education system. In a recording of his speech, Mr Vavi said factions in the ANC would ultimately lead to the party losing power.
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"We’ve been told that we will govern until Jesus comes back. That is not going to happen - people can see (the fights) - they are not fools," he said.
The ANC was not learning from its mistakes and the fact was that its failures were leading to the party losing support during elections, he said. By way of example, he cited the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality in Port Elizabeth where the party scraped through, managing only 50% of the votes in last year’s local government elections.
"We nearly lost Port Elizabeth - we camped there for two weeks (during the campaign) - away from our homes to make sure that Port Elizabeth was not taken by vultures," he said.
Mr Vavi was among key figures who was in Port Elizabeth to campaign for the ANC. The party got 63% of the votes in the municipality during the 2006 elections.
Mr Vavi said that education in the Eastern Cape was in crisis because the provincial government had mismanaged even the great initiatives they had introduced, which included feeding and school transport schemes. Factions in the ruling party allowed tenderpreneurs to flourish, and diverted funds away from much-needed initiatives.
"The Eastern Cape department of basic education has been receiving qualified reports from the auditor-general since 2005. This simply means the education department in this province, much like all others, is haunted by a reality of financial mismanagement," he said.
The Eastern Cape was not alone in mismanaging its departments. Nationally, only three out of 39 departments had received clean audit reports.
Mr Vavi said that unions were criticised for failing students when material conditions made it difficult for teachers too.
"Comrades and friends, let me emphasise that we simply cannot expect teachers to produce miraculous results in this kind of situation. This is more so since this bleak picture is also replicated in the working environment for thousands of teachers in this province."
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said yesterday that the party would respond to Mr Vavi’s statements at a later stage. "We cannot lead with anger," he said.