Clearing the air in South Africa

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South Africa's post-apartheid reconciliation process took a step forward this week when retired archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Jacob Zuma held a clear-the-air meeting in the capital Pretoria on Wednesday.

Tutu had been scathing about Zuma prior to April elections, citing a rape case in which he was cleared and corruption charges which were dropped on grounds of political interference by previous president Thabo Mbeki.

The former archbishop had indicated that he was unlikely to vote in the presidential ballot, although, in the event, he did so, although he has not disclosed which candidate received his blessing.

He announced afterwards: 'Quite unlike previous elections, there's a lot of heart-searching.'

While Zuma maintained a dignified silence over Tutu's tirade, his party the African National Congress accused his critic of having a 'narrow view of South Africa,' while the ANC Youth League declared itself 'disgusted by the ranting' of the former archbishop, who provided a public focus for criticism of apartheid while the ANC and its allies, the South African Communist Party and the South African Congress of Trade Unions, now COSATU, were still banned.

Wednesday's meeting took place in response to an approach by Tutu to the president's office, which Zuma welcomed.

Commenting the following day, Zuma said that Tutu had 'offered wise counsel on some critical matters in the country' and that both men had decided it was important 'to work together for the good of the country.'

According to presidential spokesman Vincent Magwenya, Zuma regards Tutu 'as an elder stateman of the country ... a father figure.'

In addition, he had defended Tutu's criticisms of himself as serving the cause of South Africa's democracy, insisting: 'There must be robust debate and democracy.'

For his part, Tutu said: 'Although I am sometimes critical of the challenges we face as a nation and have on occasion been critical of both the ruling party and government, I am guided only by my love for, and loyalty toward, the country of my birth.'

The two men discussed the recent wave of strikes and condemned outbreaks of violence associated with them, although it should be noted that there have been negotiated settlements to many of the disputes, which have recorded above-inflation pay rises for the workers concerned.

One of the worst outbreaks of violence took place in the Siyathemba township of the Mpumalanga town of Balfour where there were petrol-bomb attacks on government buildings and shops owned by foreign nationals.

Zuma's response was to pay an unannounced visit to the township, calling in at the mayor's office and demanding the facts behind failure to deliver services, especially new housing.

The president, who was elected on the basis of responding to the aspirations of the working class and the poor, declared that he would go to all areas where there were service delivery problems and protests.

'Places like Balfour, which seem to be very remote, that's the places I'm going to be going to, unannounced, all the time, to get to know what are the problems, why didn't we deliver certain things,' Zuma said.

Metalworkers' union Numsa spokesman Castro Ngobese welcomed the presidential visit, saying that it buried the 'aloofness, poetic bookish interpretations of problems and third force conspiracies associated with the presidency over legitimate and genuine issues during the tenure of Thabo Mbeki.'

He rejected the liberal media's characterisation of the visit as political grandstanding, which he said was part of its 'agenda of trying to isolate the leadership of President Zuma and the ANC-led alliance from its core constituency and base, using the organs of class rule and oppression.'

And the union reiterated its call for service delivery summits to deal with municipalities' difficulties in providing essential basic services to communities.

It is notable that, in a situation where 66 per cent of South Africa's voters backed the ANC at the general election, it cannot depend on a single daily newspaper for support.

The media is dominated by the same corporations that held sway during apartheid days and they share a common programme of bringing together opposition forces to put the brakes on ANC transformative policies.

The big business-backed Democratic Alliance (DA) and the split from the ANC, Congress of the People (Cope), held discussions on July 21, following earlier Cope talks with smaller opposition groups.

DA leader Helen Zille spoke of the opposition parties having leaders who are 'big on vision and courage but small on ego and pride,' while Cope spokesman, former leading communist trade unionist Phillip Dexter, said that they had 'more issues that unite them than divide them.'

In contrast, COSATU noted with contempt the new development, accused Cope of wanting to achieve 'what the imperialists, apartheid state and big business could not do in 96 years - divide and defeat this great movement of the people.'