A delegation from South Africa's largest labor federation is making its way back to Johannesburg by road, after being expelled from Zimbabwe Tuesday. The South African government is not commenting on the incident, which has exposed a rift within the ruling party on how the Zimbabwe situation should be handled.
Exhausted representatives of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU, arrived back in South Africa after traveling through the night on a bus from Harare. The 13-member delegation had gone to Zimbabwe Tuesday on a fact-finding mission, but the government accused it of being in the country illegally, and kicked the group out.
Speaking by phone from the city of Polokwane, COSATU international relations secretary Simon Boshielo described the ordeal to South African state radio.
"We were deported last night after the High Court had actually issued an order to the government of Zimbabwe to release us from detention," Mr. Boshielo says. " Instead of releasing us from detention to continue with our task, they defied their own law and sent us in a bus that actually went out of the airport, on the runway. [They were] telling us they were going to take us to the hotel, and we discovered halfway down the line that we were on the way to the border."
The bus dumped them at the Beit Bridge border crossing around dawn. From there, the union organizers caught a minibus taxi heading south.
COSATU leaders have insisted that the group was in the country legally, even though the Zimbabwean government issued a statement before they left telling them not to come. Mr. Boshielo says security officials who met them on arrival at the airport told them they could only stay if they agreed not to meet with five groups, including the Zimbabwe Council of Churches.
The episode has created a sticky situation for the South African government and its ruling party, the African National Congress. The defense minister told reporters in parliament that the incident has been "a bit embarrassing" to the ANC, given its political partnership with COSATU.
Technically, South Africa is governed now by a so-called tripartite alliance made up of the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party. They have longstanding ties dating back to the struggle against apartheid, and many South Africans belong to all three groups.
For example, the safety and security minister was a union leader in the 1970s and today is both a member of the ANC's national executive committee and the national chairperson of the Communist Party.
Both the Communists and the trade unions have been much more vocal than their ANC partners on the Zimbabwe situation. COSATU's relationship with the government of President Thabo Mbeki has become particularly strained.
Political analyst Adam Habib of the Pretoria-based Human Sciences Research Council says the ANC and COSATU probably agree that something is wrong in Zimbabwe. What they disagree on, he says, is what to do about it, and union leaders have been particularly critical of the government's policy of quiet diplomacy.
"There is clearly tension within the ANC itself about whether that is an appropriate strategy," Mr. Habib says. "And there have been discussions and debates within the party itself on that matter. Now I think the ANC is of course not in a position to publicly chart a different route to government, or at least to the presidency and foreign affairs, but COSATU is. It has a relative greater degree of autonomy and it has been very vocal right through the last two or three years about its opposition to Mugabe and what Mugabe's been up to."
Mr. Habib says it is too soon to tell whether the Zimbabwe incident will cause a major rift between the ANC and COSATU. He says it will depend on how each side handles the situation over the next few days.
For now, both the government and the ANC are refusing to comment. They say they need to learn all the facts of the situation before deciding how to respond.