“If the decision is allowed to stand it will create a terrible precedent which would spell the end of the alliance,” the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) said in a statement.
The African National Congress (ANC) decided on Monday to discipline COSATU’s leader Vavi for saying the union federation was concerned that senior ANC members were exploiting political connections to get rich.
COSATU is in a formal alliance with the ANC and Vavi is believed to be lining up a bid to head the party, which elects a new leader in two years’ time.
The relationship between the ANC and its labour and communist party alliance partners has soured, threatening to split the decades’-old partnership that freed South Africa from white minority rule.
Disciplinary action against Vavi comes at a sensitive time for the ANC, just weeks after its youth leader Julius Malema was sanctioned for bringing the party into disrepute with a series of inflammatory outbursts.
Vavi last week accused co-operative governance minister Sicelo Shiceka of lying in his CV, and communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda of running up unjustified hotel bills of half a million rand ($64,500).
While the ANC has not yet confirmed how it will proceed with the disciplinary action, Vavi said the charges would not hold.
“These charges are laughable and not going to happen because I was speaking on behalf of the union and not in my individual capacity,” Vavi told Reuters in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Vavi said COSATU, with its two million members, was well within its rights to speak out against corruption in government and the ruling party. “I speak for workers. The ANC can’t say that workers don’t have a right to be critical,” he said.
COSATU has gone head-to-head this year with the ruling party after the labour federation called for the lifestyles of senior politicians and other leaders to be audited.
The ANC’s top leadership tried to play down the incident at a luncheon for political editors on Monday. “I can tell you with my eyes closed that he (Vavi) has not received charges from the ANC,” ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said.
However, Vavi told Reuters that while he was not officially told of the charges, party insiders had confirmed that disciplinary action would be taken against him.
Having backed Zuma’s presidential bid, COSATU is now frustrated by his failure to do more for workers and to shift policy to the left and do more for the poor.
The country’s biggest trade union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) called on the ANC to clarify its position and said any disciplinary action against Vavi would be seen as an attempt to muzzle workers.
“No amount of threats will stop us from articulating our views… NUM views any attempt to charge Vavi as a declaration of war,” said Frans Baleni, NUM’s secretary general.
The federation has threatened to review its relationship with the ANC if it is not involved in all government decisions.
In rejecting the charges, Vavi said: “This is an example of factionalism in at the ANC at the best.”