Analysis: Vavi wins tug o’ war against ANC’s National Working Committee

By Andy Rice 23 June 2010

It must be awful to realise that you’re not God – especially if you thought you were. That you can’t just do everything you want. That actually there are times when right is mighty enough to beat you. That it cannot always be overcome. Some members of the ANC’s national working committee have had to learn this simple truth the hard way.

On Tuesday, the ANC’s national working committee announced it blinked during the showdown with the Cosatu boss: It is not going to charge Zwelinzima Vavi for claiming some cabinet ministers may be corrupt – not because they believe they’re wrong, but to accept the political reality. Illuminating.

Sherlock Holmes used to be fond of saying “Thrice armed he who hath cause just”. In this case Zwelinzima Vavi had three main weapons. His personal reputation, Cosatu’s whole-hearted backing (of the kind we haven’t seen for an individual since Polokwane) and some help from his friends in the South African Communist Party. And it’s paid off. Because when he stared into the deep dark recess of the ANC, the part of the party that doesn’t care about the people, the part of it that is in politics simply for itself, that recess blinked. And realised it couldn’t take on Cosatu and win.

There are plenty of reasons for this heavy defeat. Let’s start with the political mechanics.

Winning over the NWC is one thing. It consists of 20 people, a relatively easy group to achieve consensus on an issue. Although even within it we know there are people deeply unhappy with a plan to discipline Vavi, because they clearly leaked it both to the media and to him. But the national executive committee is quite another thing. Their move would have turned into a battle royale, of the kind we haven’t seen for years. There was plenty at stake, and there are loads of political reasons why taking on Cosatu directly in this fashion is a bad idea. And that’s without considering the support Vavi had. To put this another way, the nasty dark recesses of the ANC would have faced the prospect where by trying to shut Vavi up, they could have been dragged into the sunlight. Their identities, the full nature of their clique would have been exposed. It could have set up the battle lines between them and the rest of the ANC rather nicely. And they could have lost.

The other problem they faced was taking on Cosatu. Cosatu made damn sure it would oppose the charging of Vavi with every fibre of its being. There would have been protests, marches, outside Luthuli House. But more importantly, it would have shown up the contrasts on Cosatu’s view on corruption, and this nasty clique’s view of corruption. It would have become all too obvious who was getting government contracts, through whom and how. And it would have been very easy to see who was fighting against corruption. In other words, Cosatu would have looked like the white knights, and the clique like the Dark Side of the Force. Or Darth Vader if you like.

Then there is the issue of what was clearly a pre-emptive leak. By leaking the conversation about charging Vavi, someone in the NWC pretty much made sure it didn’t happen. Cunning, isn’t it? And that means Vavi still has friends on the NWC.

All of this seems to be summed up in one sentence in the ANC’s statement. “Charging cde Vavi is not the best option…this is a political problem”. It’s pretty much an admission that they weren’t going to win.

So now this problem is going to be solved through “direct engagement” with Cosatu. This problem being that Vavi won’t stop pointing fingers and saying “You guys may be corrupt, but at least you should investigate”. Now, we’ve learnt a thing or two about Vavi over the years, Cosatu too. And it’s this. They’ve learnt that in politics, stubborn can be good. So good luck to the ANC in their “engagement”.

Vavi himself was pretty pleased to be told of the ANC’s decision. “It’ll allow us to put this sorry episode behind us,” he said.

But in a sentence no doubt designed to appease the hawks on the NWC, the ANC did say “Vavi had gone too far…this type of behaviour is alien to us”. But Vavi’s having none of it. “That’s funny,” he says, “how can saying please investigate evidence of corruption be alien to the ANC?”

It’s the unanswerable point, isn’t it?   

So Vavi lives on to fight another day as friend-of-the-ANC. Any “direct engagement” will no doubt involve him and a few of his closest friends against Mantashe and a few of his. Except that it strikes us that it probably isn’t Mantashe and his closest friends who are attacking Vavi anyway. It’s his not-so-close-friends who are doing it. The guys from whom he needs to think about creating some distance. Good luck to him though, he may need them for other battles.

But in truth, the real mistake by the ANC’s nasty dark recesses was to try to make this the playing field in the first place. If public opinion could go against you in a political battle, don’t battle in public. This isn’t rocket science. It was rush-of-blood-to-the-head stuff to think about formally charging him in the first place. It was the Greeks who taught us about hubris. And about how the Gods themselves can be touched by it.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)


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