By Christelle Terreblanche and Karima Brown

The current face-offs between the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the African National Congress over Zimbabwe and the recent Telkom share deal are symptomatic of unresolved tensions over key policy issues in the tripartite alliance.

Although the open war of words is nothing new in their 13-year formal relationship, it comes at a crucial time with the three partners ironically more agreed on economic policy than previously.

The partners enjoyed a shortlived rosy spell during the April election campaign, with Cosatu's easily mobilised support base galvanised behind the ANC's election manifesto. The 70 percent election win gave the ANC renewed confidence to aggressively pursue key deliverables like halving unemployment by 2014.

A renewed optimism in leftwing circles followed a broad agreement that more state intervention was needed, but all three differ on how and how much.

South African Communist Party deputy secretary-general Jeremy Cronin believes the improved relations are the result of "an evolution on the part of government's economic policy". Cosatu and the SACP insist they had won the policy debate at the ANC's 2002 Stellenbosch conference even though few of their candidates were elected to the ANC's national executive committee.

The junior partners - the SACP and Cosatu - are now keen to consolidate acknowledgements that the Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan (Gear), the biggest bone of contention, was an insufficient macro-economic policy to fight poverty.

There is also ongoing, but growing unhappiness in Cosatu about the mechanics of how the tripartite alliance functions. Perceptions of growing ANC government patronage and corruption are also understood to have also turned up the heat in behind-the-scenes exchanges.

At its root the tensions within the alliance relate to different interpretations about the nature of the transition to democracy. When the ANC government chose Gear above Cosatu's reconstruction and development programme in 1996, the ANC was accused of "walking left but talking right". The ANC argued that globalisation constrained its policy options and the challenge was how to maximise it's opportunities within these. Yet these self-imposed constraints remained a subjective choice, which up until 2002 kept alliance debates robust and often divisive, particularly over Gear's demand for privatisation of state-owned entities.

ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe says the ANC failed to communicate the underlying politics of Gear to its alliance partners.

It had been important to stabilise the economy, especially as the ANC had inherited a debt-riddled state.

Such misunderstandings, along with disagreements over privatisation and public service salaries, increasingly dogged the alliance. The first sign of a thawing came with the Ekhurhuleni Declaration at a 2003 alliance summit, which committed them to consolidating their "profound strategic unity".

It prescribed follow-up alliance summits. The first was eventually set for September 2004, with an agenda that included building and consolidating the election's programme of action as a way to remain in touch with grassroots support and fight poverty along with fine-tuning economic policy agreements.

But the now twice-postponed summit is likely to happen only sometime next year. And it will have to take place before the ANC's mid-term national council where alliance partners will, as ANC members, reassess programmes and start the succession debate ahead of the 2007 congress. Disagreements will either have to be resolved or take a back seat.

Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi says "tardiness on the part of the alliance secretariat" is the main reason why the summit has not taken place.

The fight within the alliance also spilled over into aspects of foreign policy when Cosatu sent the fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe.

The SACP's Cronin says while his party agrees with the government's view that Zimbabweans must drive the process for change in that country, South Africans do have a role.

Political analyst Aubrey Mashiqi says the key to understanding the spat is understanding the ANC's leadership role in the alliance, which demands that Cosatu should have consulted on Zimbabwe.

Another analyst, Steven Friedman, says the alliance is under no immediate threat because it is based on mutual need. Cosatu, through the ANC, can influence key legislation and labour and economic policy and the ANC can access Cosatu's huge infrastructure.