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Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has come under severe criticism from the ANC for statements he made to the media at the weekend.
Vavi rebuked some of President Thabo Mbeki's cabinet ministers and described them as "deadwoods", "who remain untouchable". He said some were "dying on duty".
In a hard-hitting statement issued late yesterday, the head of the presidency Smuts Ngonyama lambasted Vavi for making "deplorable" and "irresponsible" comments unbecoming of a leader who headed the secretariat of a progressive trade union movement.
"The statements demonstrate a failure to understand the difference between frank and constructive criticism," said Ngonyama.
"This an essential feature of the democratic movement, and the kind of abusive ranting to which many of the ANC's opponents regularly stoop."
He said: "These are not the sort of comments one would expect from a senior member of the ANC-led alliance."
Vavi's comment about ministers "dying on duty" is an apparent reference to Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who recently had a liver transplant.
Vavi comments came while he condemned Mbeki's dismissal of Deputy Minister of Health Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge who was fired over an unauthorised trip to Madrid, Spain, and for failing to work within the government's collective.
Ngonyama expressed disappointment at Vavi's statements.
"His insensitive reference to ministers 'dying on duty' demonstrates a shameful lack of respect for those who have passed away, and for their families, colleagues and friends," said Ngonyama.
He said cabinet ministers who had died while in office - former ministers of housing Joe Slovo, safety and security Steve Tshwete, justice Dullah Omar and public works Stella Sigcau - served the nation with dignity.
"Vavi's attack on current members of the executive is uncalled for. The experience of the last 13 years demonstrates that tangible and meaningful progress has been made by the government in improving the living conditions of our people," he said.
"These achievements have been reviewed and reiterated on numerous occasions including at two successive alliance summits."
According to Ngonyama, the contribution made by the ministers should not be "demeaned or belittled by those who would rather play to the gallery than honestly examine the strengths and weaknesses of our government".
He reiterated the ANC's support for Mbeki's decision to "relieve Madlala-Routledge of her responsibilities in government".
"The ANC respects and accepts the decision taken by the president, in accordance with the powers and responsibilities conferred on him by the constitution," he said.
"The ANC thanks Madlala-Routledge for her contribution to the country's transformation during her tenure."