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23 October 2014 16:14 (South Africa)
South Africa

Vavi’s ultimate test: Taking on the Undefeated One

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa
ranjeni on vavi vs the undefeated.jpg

Zwelinzima Vavi might not see it just yet, but he is defining the lines for a major multi-pronged war inside and outside Cosatu. While he is under increasing pressure from senior figures in Cosatu, the ANC and the SACP, who are trying to drive him out of his position, he is laying the groundwork for strike action, mass protests against e-tolling and a civil society affront on corruption. Cosatu is heading for a big showdown with the ANC and government, and eventually with the ultimate challenger. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

On Wednesday, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi issued a statement on behalf of 39 civil society formations, including his labour federation, announcing a mass mobilisation against corruption and abuse of power. The organisations, meeting under the umbrella of the National Anti-Corruption Forum, declared that “corruption is the biggest threat to our young democracy” and that the forum will therefore be developing a “concrete detailed platform” to mobilise civil society.  

“We have agreed to coordinate our activities within and between all civil society formations to ensure that these anti-corruption campaigns have a maximum impact on corruption.

“We shall use the forum as a loose campaign structure to conduct a campaign that will expose corruption without fear or favour, irrespective of the individuals and institutions concerned. Key to the campaign will be to ensure that information is disseminated in a manner that empowers grassroots structures and a bottom-up approach in future campaigns,” the statement read. 

It went on to say that information will be shared among all participating civil society formations through a website/email network and social media to keep each organisation informed of campaigns, challenges, successes and setbacks.

Some of the demands of the anti-corruption forum are likely to court controversy among the governing elite and make Vavi an even bigger nuisance than he is perceived to be now. 

“We call for new laws to be introduced that will not allow families of the political leadership, including trade unions and civil society, from doing business with government. We call for new laws that will ensure that we deal with the phenomenon of javelin throwing and specifically call for all senior civil servants and political leaders not be allowed to do business with the state after they have left the public service for a period of between two to five years,” the statement said. 

The forum also called for lifestyle audits to be periodically conducted on all political leaders, senior public servants, and civil society and trade union leaders to enable individuals to explain their lifestyles.

One of the major admonitions levelled against Vavi by his opponents at Cosatu’s national congress last year was his critical stance against government and collaboration with civil society formations against corruption. Despite the intensification of the campaign to remove him from the Cosatu leadership now, Vavi appears to be digging in his heels and seemingly wants to keep the federation in alliance with civil society organisations. 

This is likely to add to the submissions which will be made by Cosatu affiliates to a panel investigating the political and organisational state of the federation. Union leaders from the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union in particular believe that Vavi is straying from Cosatu’s agreed positions when he attacks the ANC and government, and is therefore effectively locating Cosatu as a formation in the opposition to the ANC. 

But Vavi believes he has a duty and responsibility to act in the interests of workers and therefore has refused to back down, even after he was attacked for his outspoken views at the September congress and with his leadership under siege now. 

Speaking at metalworkers union Numsa’s national bargaining conference on Thursday, Vavi lashed out at those leading the onslaught against him saying he was now of the view that “there will be no common ground with those leaders, whoever they may be”. After months of shadowboxing with “faceless” opponents within Cosatu, Vavi took the unusual step of claiming that those leaking damaging allegations about him to the media were at the level of presidents and general secretaries of affiliate unions. 

“They have been given a mandate to destroy Cosatu or at best create so much division that the federation can no longer be an independent movement capable of fighting for the interests of members. The mandate of the sources is very clear: target the general secretary and smear him continuously in the newspapers until workers lose trust in him… 

“Either they succeed to divide and weaken Cosatu, or we expose them and crush them. The real reason why they won’t disclose their identities is that they act without any mandate from the members of their unions. Eventually we shall defeat these few individuals acting as sources of the newspapers; we have no doubt about that,” Vavi said. 

While he is fighting these internal battles, Vavi is also gearing Cosatu up for major fights with government, which will likely place further strain on the alliance. He said on Thursday that Cosatu had submitted a Section 77 notice at the National Economic Development and Labour Council, which throws down the gauntlet on various economic policy issues. 

“Our demands, amongst many others, are state intervention in strategic sectors of the economy, including through nationalisation, addressing the unemployment crisis through creation of decent work, promoting active industrialisation, eradication of poverty, a 40-hour working week, banning of labour broking and access to free quality education and healthcare,” Vavi said. 

Cosatu is also rejecting parts of the National Development Plan (NDP), in particular the introduction of lower entry wages for young workers. 

“The NDP’s economic and labour market proposals constitute a serious assault on workers. Cosatu will not support them,” Vavi said. “It is simply unfair for anyone, in particular our ally the ANC, to ask us to cooperate with our own oppression and exploitation, which is what the NDP’s major proposals are. The NDP represents a typical example of the chicken and a pig partnership in which the chicken offers to lay eggs for breakfast but asks the pig to donate bacon.”

With the NDP now adopted as the cornerstone of all future policy and planning in the ANC government and supported by the SACP, Cosatu’s stance is likely to infuriate its allies. What’s more, finding a middle ground with such hardline positions on either side will be difficult. 

Vavi is also determined to continue to oppose the introduction of e-tolling on Gauteng freeways and has called for motorists to defy e-tolling. Along with campaigns against electricity tariff increases and gender-based violence, and for increased service delivery and healthcare, Vavi is positioning Cosatu as the most prominent civil society voice in society. 

“We will never apologise for campaigning on social issues outside the workplace, which directly affect the quality of life of the workers and their families,” he said at the Numsa conference. 

All of this means that major fights are coming against government and within the tripartite alliance – all in the year before a national election. The alliance has been to the brink and back before, and managed to close ranks during election campaigns. This time, however, there is a bounty on Vavi’s head and there might be sufficient evidence for his detractors to argue that he continues to act like an opposition leader, in disregard of the caution he received at the Cosatu congress.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that Vavi is battling to stay within the constraints of Cosatu, which itself is in an untenable position within the alliance. But Vavi is showing no sign of backing down and is instead constructing a full, multi-pronged offensive inside and outside Cosatu. 

In a few months, in the midst of battle, it will become clear who he is effectively challenging. There is one person behind the curtain of all the wars he is fighting and who Vavi’s detractors are trying to protect. If Vavi continues ploughing ahead in his various campaigns, the curtain will eventually be torn down and he will have to come face-to-face with the person he does not yet know he is taking on. Vavi himself is not fully prepared politically and strategically for this. 

If Vavi survives, he will be the only person to take on one Jacob Zuma and not be squashed politically. Several powerful figures have stepped up to the challenge in the past, suffered humiliating defeat and have been cast into the political wilderness. Zuma is not easy to vanquish but Vavi will be no pushover – if he is strategically geared up for the fight. It will be a difficult battle to bet on. DM

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Photo by Reuters.

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa


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