You can sometimes be forgiven for thinking that Zwelinzima Vavi is just the working man’s Julius Malema. There’s his seemingly rabid support for Jacob Zuma, his full-scale tilt at trying to change economic policy and the odd, well-timed radical statement.
It does seem as if he enjoys bringing the country to a halt, or threatening to do so, for political reasons that have nothing to do with real workers’ rights or building the economy. You look up at his large frame, his refusal to sometimes listen to sense, and think, “Hell, here goes the country”.
But that would be incorrect. Vavi is actually emerging as one of the more principled, thoughtful and originally independent voices in our political landscape. Sure, he’s wedded to the alliance, and pretty much to Jacob Zuma, but listen closely, and you’ll glimpse a much deeper side.
Zwelinzima Joseph Vavi was born in 1962. As a teenager, his first job was as a farm labourer. Not a promising start, when you consider he can now call millions on to the streets. He came up through the mines (hasn’t everybody in alliance politics), becoming a shop steward at the Vaal Reefs South Mine and eventually getting more involved in Cosatu. From there he moved quite quickly, taking over the top job there 10 years ago. There were the usual stints at Cosas, and, briefly, as an SACP office bearer in the then Vaal Triangle sub-region in the early 90s.
Like all unionists, there are three things Vavi always wants for his workers. More money, less hours, better conditions. It’s pretty easy to be consistent on issues like that. But Vavi has used his consistency to great effect on three of the biggest issues of the last 10 years: Aids, Zimbabwe and economic policy.
Think about how hard it must have been to be in the alliance since the late 1990s. Manto was in full swing as health minister, Sibongile Manana was ruining the health system in Mpumalanga, and sacking doctors because they allowed NGOs to provide ARVs to rape victims. The lunatics really were running the asylum. Something was definitely in the pipe being smoked by the man at the top. Or was it a single-malt?
But Vavi read the temperature on the ground, from his workers. He knew this couldn’t be allowed to last forever. And he went public about it. When just about everyone else at the ANC was either parroting the madness or wisely staying mum and waiting for better times, Vavi was the guy fighting for the very same better times. He spoke about Aids whenever he could and took what came to him on the chin.
The only way he could have pissed off Mbeki any more was by having a dip at Robert Mugabe.
And so he did, ridiculing Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy and “what crisis?” approach. To Mbeki’s and his lieutenants’ loud teeth gnashing, he and some of his central executive committee went to Zimbabwe. They didn’t get further than Harare International, but the point was clear. There was only one right thing to do, and that was to support the Movement for Democratic Change over the guy who was destroying Zimbabwe and exporting its crisis into the region. There was also huge solidarity with Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC, which had started out of the trade union movement in Zimbabwe. By the end of it, any statement sent out by Zimbabwe’s unions was being forwarded to virtually every South African journalist from Cosatu’s mailbox. That’s shoulder-to-shoulder stuff, if ever there was. And, if that was possible, it must have made Mbeki even more angry. But Vavi hasn’t stopped on the subject. Just a couple of months after Polokwane, when Vavi and the new ANC were still getting to grips with each other, he and Gwede Mantashe had a late-night press conference after a meeting. Just as the “Global political agreement” in Harare was breaking down again, Mantashe refused to take my questions on Zimbabwe, but Vavi, knowing he was directly contradicting the ANC’s line (Mbeki was still SA president and Zuma undecided) stuck the boot in, calling for Mugabe to go.
Unionists are political players, but it’s often forgotten that their core job is, in fact, looking after their members. That’s taking care of their affiliates and glad-handing the leaders of the individual unions, but also trying to look out for the individual workers they represent. And there are a hell of a lot of them. Cosatu’s own estimate talks about 8 million members. To put that in context, the incredibly loud ANC Youth League has about 350,000, while the ANC itself has less than a million.
It is not correct to compare them directly, though. ANC members are people who have taken a political decision to join (it’s also about identity as well, in this country). Cosatu’s members are people who’ve joined unions in the hope of getting help when they need it. So their support is likely to be softer than, say, those who join the Youth League. But there’s another, positive effect of that. It means Vavi has more space to roam, because he’s not beholden to a single group of people with a dogmatic ideological view.
But representing workers in South Africa also means you’re representing people with actual jobs. That makes them, in a South African landscape at least, virtually a middle class. That makes for a big break with Malema, who represents what communists call the “unwaged”. Vavi’s constituency is made up of people with something to lose. They’re more likely to be family people, with kids and a job they want to keep, which is bound to somewhat moderate Vavi’s actions. But it’s also this aspect that gives him the political capital to take on Aids and Zimbabwe in quite the emphatic way he has. Because it’s mostly workers who get wiped out by Aids, and the Zimbabwean expats are more likely to compete for their jobs.
It also means that when he said “I will kill for Zuma”, there was a backlash within his own organisation. Being a quick thinker, he realised he’d been wrong. So he apologised. As a result, he got a tiny share of the backlash Malema got for making exactly the same statement. In this political scene, it’s a mature thing to apologise. Because it hardly ever happens in this country, it turned out to be a deft move.
More recently, Vavi has started to show a bit more tactical nous. He was offered, but refused to take a position on the ANC’s national executive committee. At the time he claimed it was because he wanted to focus on his workers and their needs. But what it’s done is to give him even more freedom while retaining all the capital gained through principled opposition to Mbeki.
As proof, look at Blade Nzimande, who took an NEC spot and a job in government. The trappings of power came with it, expensive cars and all, and, as a result, he’s lost quite a bit of spunk. Nzimande can’t go on about the evils of capitalism as he would have liked to, nor can he proclaim a victory for socialism quite as easily anymore.
Vavi, however, is still free to argue against inflation targeting and the Reserve Bank’s independence as much as wants. (And he probably will win that battle. – Ed.) His deft touch has also been evidenced in the macro-economic policy debate. Just last week, he said he would start strategic alliances with business, when it comes to discussions with government over the Reserve Bank’s mandate. He’s actually quite comfortable with business people. He and Patrice Motsepe often end up sitting next to each other at big government functions. Lazarus Zim was seen in the Cosatu House lift (when it works) when he was still at Anglo.
Under Vavi’s watch, Cosatu’s become a massive force; he’s the guy who can really bring the country to a halt. But it doesn’t seem as if that’s his main aim. Power is among his goals, and he seems to be thinking about pursuing that in a different way. He’s indicated recently that in future he wants to be the power within the ANC itself. Perhaps that way he admits that’s the real seat of power in the country, and being outside the main door, no matter how powerfully, is still not a good idea. Either way, we hope he’ll want to stay his own man. The country will be stronger for it.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
Photo: Zwelinzima Vavi, listens to speakers during the third day of COSATU’s ninth national congress at Gallagher Estate in Johannesburg September 20, 2006. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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