President Jacob Zuma apparently ignored the advice of his allies in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and travelled to the Congress of South African Trade Unions’ (Cosatu) Workers’ Day rally in Bloemfontein on Monday, May 1, fully expecting the hostile reception he believed could be worked to his advantage.
On Monday, Cosatu was forced to abort its main May Day rally after Mr Zuma was prevented from delivering the keynote address.
The crowd sang anti-Zuma songs which escalated when the president arrived at the rally. Local media reported that in an unprecedented move, and following several attempts by provincial leaders to calm the crowd, Cosatu announced an end to the event with no speeches delivered.
A blow to Mr Zuma? Not likely.
Sources close to some ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) members said after the apparent humiliation of Mr Zuma that it had been anticipated and that his decision to attend against advice was a strategic gambit to create further division in Cosatu and, more to the point, in the South African Communist Party (SACP) that he sees as the leaders of the internal revolt against him.
The sources said it was inconceivable that Mr Zuma would have believed he would be welcome at the Cosatu gathering and had been given plenty of early warning that this was not the case, but he went anyway.
His arrogance and ‘water off a duck’s back’ attitude to criticism and humiliation were not adequate to explain such a confrontational move that almost dared his opponents in the trade union federation to take him on.
As it stands, Mr Zuma emerges the victim and Cosatu is left to explain to its members just why such an important event where workers’ issues and worker concerns should have been addressed and aired had to be cancelled because someone in Cosatu leadership structures made a massive mistake.
Cosatu must face the questions around why union members from the same federation engaged in fisticuffs – hurling insults at each other and generally undermining everything worker unity was supposed to represent.
Local and international media confirmed that scuffles broke out and all speeches were cancelled after clashes between pro and anti-Zuma groups. This while Mr Zuma sat apparently unmoved – smiling and laughing with his closed ranks of supporters while union members beat each other up.
How that could possibly be regarded as a defeat or setback for Mr Zuma is a little difficult to explain.
It is easier to explain how Mr Zuma came to Bloemfontein to provoke exactly what subsequently took place – sparking open warfare in a now unreliable alliance partner he clearly believes he no longer needs.
Cosatu is openly backing the rival to his chosen successor and any disunity and infighting within Cosatu will be a distraction.
Mr Zuma has spent much of the past few months confining his public appearances to rural areas – specifically in his stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal.
The president has clearly decided that his strength lies in the local branch structures and compromised State and State-owned enterprise (SOE) sectors and no longer in the trade union movement – and certainly not in the SACP.
Monday was a no-lose situation for Mr Zuma in Bloemfontein.
If allowed to speak, it would have been a massive setback to those in Cosatu who have openly called for his resignation and campaigned so hard to keep him off the worker stage. It would also have opened more fault lines among the clearly fractured leadership and possibly sparked more defections.
If rejected (as happened), it served a similar purpose if from a different angle but also emphasised and deepened the divisions in the leadership – not only of Cosatu but of the SACP too.
Mr Zuma is often ridiculed for his lack of formal education, but his skill, street wisdom and cunning at manipulating a situation to his advantage is well known – he travelled to Bloemfontein in the full and certain knowledge of what would transpire.
Mr Zuma lives by distraction and smoke and mirrors and this was just another example.
Get the best of CNBC Africa sent straight to your inbox with breaking business news, insights and updates from experts across the continent. Sign up here.