But unlike the crony capitalists who can only really rely on themselves to hit back, he has been able to find himself a long list of allies countrywide. People who have now associated themselves with him and with Cosatu in the fight against the darker recesses of the ANC. No doubt, there is a large group of people within the ANC cheering him on. But the public battle has moved to another front.
Finding a specific example in Kenny Kunene’s 40th birthday party – you know the one resembling imperial Roman decadence with guests nibbling sushi off the stomachs of semi-naked women – Vavi’s attacks are also given vivid imagery of what it is he’s fighting against. Instead of the abstract image of a hyena picking at the carcass of a government contract, you have an image of a fat-cat eating all the cream. And where Kunene and his fellow sushi eaters allow their less rational body parts to take over is in their egotistical fascination with politics and the press.
Vavi’s job was made easier by Kunene himself. A picture in The Times shows him with the sushi, er, platter. And he has his arms around assorted semi-naked “sushi platters”, in what is an obvious pose for a newspaper photographer. But how did he expect the final photo will be seen by the people who have to make their living on R1,000 a month once the very photo inevitably ends in the newspapers?
Even if, as Kunene claims, he’s just grateful that “my businesses are successful, and they allow me to buy the same things that others may have had to be corrupt to buy”, it is easy to look at the picture and feel, in a very human way, that no one deserves that kind of money.
Then to add to the overall recklessness, if not sheer stupidity, political figures come to these things. Don’t they get it? They’re not being asked to come because of their sparkling wit. Julius Malema is in danger of being invited as an entertainer. The incredibly well-heeled who clapped him wholeheartedly at Robert Gumede’s wedding weren’t supporting the nationalisation of mines. They were treating him like a court jester.
Of course, all of these late-Roman-Empire style bacchanalias just provide grist to Vavi’s mill. And he’s using it well. By getting civil society movements on side, he’s able to show that it’s not just him. It’s not just Cosatu and it’s not just a political ploy. In a way, this civil society conference has provided Vavi with loads of political cover. For him, with a bit of luck, this conference will provide the chance to say to the ANC, look, it’s not just me or my organisation, in fact, most of society agrees with me, and not with you.
For Vavi himself this week may be the start of a transformation from union leader to something else. Perhaps. Perhaps not. It may just be a slightly cynical way of boosting his own power within the alliance, as he is one of the few who can claim to have a broad popular support.
However, there is a risk for Vavi too. The ANC Youth League’s response so far has been to suggest in a coded form that he’s really starting his own political party. And when you look at this conference, and at the formation of Cope (such as it was at one point), they may have a point. Vavi should be careful to find a way to make sure this charge doesn’t stick. Unless, of course, he wants it to.
Interestingly, on Thursday the ANC felt the need to say that it will respond “comprehensively” to Vavi’s comments, and the conference in general, after its national working committee meeting on Monday. The NWC is not dominated by Vavi’s allies, and it’s likely to be a humdinger of a discussion. This is the group that seriously thought of “disciplining” Vavi earlier this year. Malema and his ilk will surely try to claim the ANC has to act after President Jacob Zuma’s focus on discipline at the national general council.
But that will only be part of the story. The ANC itself will only look ever-more isolated if it does try to take action against the politician who raises his voice against corruption and excess. It cannot continue to claim to be a “multiclass organisation with a bias towards the poor” if its leaders find eating sushi off fine, sexy, nubile feminine abdomens acceptable. So the ball is in the ANC’s court. And we can’t wait for its return. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.
Photo: The Daily Maverick.
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