Checkmate: The case against Zwelinzima Vavi
Suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has tried to stare down the leadership of the federation in an all-or-nothing battle for survival. After being accused of sexual misconduct, he and his allies tried to fight his suspension within the federation and in court, attempted to force an urgent special congress and rallied support. But by trying to outmanoeuvre his opponents and delaying a decision on his future, he played into the hands of the people who want him out of Cosatu. Now he’s facing a disciplinary inquiry with nine charges against him and he is damned if he goes through it and damned if he doesn’t. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
In November, Daily Maverick reported that Cosatu had appointed a second forensic team to investigate irregular use of the federation’s finances by Zwelinzima Vavi. Vavi had been suspended by the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) since August after staff member Jacqueline Phooko accused him of rape; the charge was subsequently withdrawn.
When the accusation emerged, Vavi immediately countered it publicly, admitting that he and Phooko had been involved in a romantic relationship. To refute the rape allegation, he released a series of text messages showing that after their sexual encounter at the Cosatu headquarters in January 2013, they continued to communicate normally. He also released information showing that he was laying a criminal charge of extortion against Phooko for allegedly trying to solicit money from Vavi and his wife in exchange for her silence about the sexual encounter.
This was the first series of mistakes Vavi made which have now come back to haunt him. The affair, which Vavi admitted to, and release of Cosatu’s internal grievance documentation form part of the nine charges he is facing in a disciplinary inquiry to be chaired by prominent advocate Wim Trengove.
The other charges relate to the unprocedural way Phooko was hired as a logistics administrator, the conversion of her employment from six months to a fulltime contract after the affair began and without consultation with the other Cosatu office bearers, and failure to supervise Phooko after complaints of poor performance. According to the charge sheet leaked to the Mail & Guardian, due to Vavi’s failure to deal with the complaints against Phooko, travel expenses in the amount of R483,737 for the 2012 financial year and R778,624 for the 2013 financial year were unaccounted for.
Vavi also stands accused of using Cosatu finances to pay for his personal and family’s flight travel and accommodation. The forensic investigators found that Cosatu had been billed for Vavi’s wife Noluthando’s flights to and from the Cape Town Jazz festival in March 2012 and accommodation for the couple at the Nova Constantia Boutique Hotel for the period during the music festival. Several other of Noluthando’s flights, as well as return flights to Durban for Vavi’s ex-wife Nikiwe and his son, were also billed to Cosatu.
Cosatu was also billed for a massage at Johannesburg Hotel. “At your insistence a charge for services rendered to you by a body therapist at the Parktonian Protea Hotel on May 23 2013 was paid by Cosatu in the amount of R1,500,” the charge sheet states.
When Daily Maverick first reported in November on the irregular travel expenses being billed to Cosatu, the explanation from a source close to Vavi was that Phooko had made all these bookings on his behalf as he had given her his credit card and frequent flyer details. The source also said that Vavi had been unaware that the expenses incurred during the jazz festival had been billed to Cosatu as they had been guests of an investment bank, which was meant to pick up the tab.
This is the second forensic investigation appointed by Cosatu to probe allegations against Vavi. Since early last year, he has faced allegations of impropriety around the sale of the old Cosatu headquarters and purchase of the new building. This matter is still ongoing and is being handled separately from the disciplinary inquiry.
In the Trengove inquiry, Vavi also has to answer to charges of breaching his suspension conditions and public utterances at meetings and on Twitter, some of which are viewed as attacks on the Cosatu leadership. Thirteen of his tweets are cited in the charge sheet.
The 33-page document makes it clear that the book is being thrown at Vavi and that Cosatu is aiming for maximum punishment for his alleged transgressions. “Please be advised that Cosatu considers the charges against you to be grave and destructive of the working relationship between it and yourself. Subject of course to the findings of the chairperson (Trengove) it is the intention of Cosatu to move for your summary dismissal in the event of a finding of guilt in respect of one or more of them.”
For the moment, neither side is engaging on the contents of the charge sheet, but rather who leaked it to the media. Vavi’s camp reacted angrily to the leak and his spokesman John Dludlu issued a statement accusing his detractors of doing so. He said the purpose was “to subject Mr Vavi to a media trial with the hope that some, if not all, of the trumped-up charges against him will stick like mud”.
“This is unfair, and in our view represents a further assault on the rights of Mr Vavi,” Dludlu said. “We are however confident that many South Africans will see through this malicious agenda. The basic rule at all times is that the onus and the burden of proof lies with the one making allegations. Mr Vavi is no different – he remains innocent until proven guilty.”
Cosatu has also denied that the leak came from them. In a statement the federation challenged anyone who made such an accusation to substantiate or withdraw it. Cosatu insiders believe the leak came from Vavi’s camp in order to play up public sympathy.
But Dludlu refuted this saying Vavi was “distressed” by the charges being leaked as he was still in the process of consulting his lawyers and allies to decide how to respond to the disciplinary inquiry.
The leak is, however, immaterial, as the allegations have been in the public domain since July last year. What matters now is whether Vavi consents to participating in the disciplinary process and is ready to accept the outcome, or whether he will cut his losses and walk away.
This decision should have already been made long ago. Now that the charges are in the public domain, Vavi would feel compelled to want to clear his name. But the disciplinary process will not be pleasant as all the gory details of his affair and conduct will have to be scrutinised and defended. And with him already publicly admitting to and apologising for the affair, it will be difficult to recant now.
Cosatu has already made it clear in the charge sheet that it wants Vavi dismissed “in the event of finding of guilt in respect of one or more [charges]”. So even if Trengove exonerates Vavi on the other charges and recommends a lesser penalty, the decision on what punishment should be handed down is up to the Cosatu leadership. Since it was a decision of the Cosatu CEC to suspend Vavi and subject him to a disciplinary process, Trengove’s report will in all likelihood go back to the CEC for a final decision. Vavi’s allies are outnumbered in the CEC, so it is almost certain that the committee will decide to fire him for bringing Cosatu into disrepute.
And that is not even the end of the road. The CEC still needs to decide what to do with the report of the other forensic investigation into the building lease.
Vavi’s allies, led by metalworkers union Numsa, are still determined to push ahead with a special Cosatu congress where they believe the membership will side with him and turn on Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini and his allies.
Dlamini, who is empowered by the Cosatu constitution to convene a special congress, has been accused by Vavi’s supporters of stalling the congress. However, Dlamini met with the presidents and general secretaries of the affiliate unions, including Numsa, last week to discuss preparations for the congress. No date or venue had yet been decided on.
If Vavi undergoes the disciplinary process in the meantime, the congress will have to contemplate the charges against him and his firing rather than the initial plan of overturning his suspension. With all the charges now spelled out in detail in public, Vavi will be compelled to explain them rather than to have argued his suspension as a political hit.
In the time between Vavi’s suspension and his allies going to court to challenge Cosatu, and him now facing formal charges, Cosatu has regained its footing. Dlamini and the acting general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali have worked to steady the federation and turn its attention to the ANC’s election campaign.
Vavi, in the meantime, has been isolated, with only Numsa keeping his flag flying publicly. The problem with this is that Numsa’s support for Vavi is now intertwined with its resolutions taken at its special congress in December. While nine affiliate unions supported Vavi and backed the call for a special congress, none of the other eight have come out in support of Numsa’s decision not to back the ANC in the upcoming election. This shows a distinction between support for Vavi and support for Numsa’s move against the ANC.
Vavi should have taken the plunge while he was still riding the wave of support and before the gory details of his charges were revealed. By waiting for six months for the charges against him to be formulated, he also lost some momentum. Keeping his support base onside might prove a lot more difficult now.
Over the next few days, he will decide whether to go through the disciplinary inquiry or leave Cosatu. He can still try to clear his name by explaining his version publicly, but as he fears, some of the mud will stick. Through his indecisiveness, Vavi may have run out of good options.
It’s either jump or be pushed, Mr Vavi. Your call. DM
Photo: Cosatu's Zwelinzima Vavi at their collective bargaining, organising, and campaigns conference in Boksburg on Tuesday, 12 March 2013.
Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA