By Peroshni Govender
MIDRAND, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa's powerful union movement fired a warning shot at President Jacob Zuma on Monday, telling him not to take its support for granted in next year's elections for leader of the ruling ANC.
At its four-yearly strategy conference this week, the 2 million-strong Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) also ripped into Zuma's leadership of Africa's biggest economy, accusing him of presiding over "wild zig-zagging" in policy.
COSATU was instrumental in Zuma's rise to power, throwing its weight behind him in a 2007 ANC power struggle. But after clashes over graft, growing income inequality and a lack of basic leadership, COSATU said its support was not set in stone.
"We need to ask if there are any reasons to compel us to do as we did at that time," organization president Sidumo Dlamini told the conference.
Taking the podium moments later, a tired-looking Zuma hit back, telling the union umbrella group's leaders not to overstate their role in an official ANC-led governing alliance.
"Members of powerful organisations believe they can deal with things the way they want and not the way situation demands," he said. "Strength becomes a problem if it is not understood correctly politically and can become a disadvantage."
In its conference literature, COSATU did not pull its punches.
It described the last 3-1/2 years as the most volatile since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, with "deepening contradictions and wild zig-zagging in the political direction of the country."
It also poured scorn on the emergence of "a powerful, corrupt, predatory elite" using populism to advance its own interests -- a thinly veiled reference to ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema's push for nationalization of mines.
COSATU has previously accused Zuma and his close family members of engaging in a "feeding frenzy" by using political connections to secure lucrative mining deals.
Unions are also suspicious that the Youth League push for nationalization is a front for black affirmative action investors who want government aid for struggling ventures.
"The ANC leadership have committed a number of mistakes which have made it difficult for COSATU to effectively mobilize support of its constituency," it said.
The ANC chooses its candidate for a 2014 presidential election at a party conference next year, and any successful runner needs to count on union backing.
Zuma is favorite to win the ticket, which would virtually assure him another five years in power, although an unremarkable first two years in office have fueled speculation of a leadership challenge.
(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Louise Ireland)