The bold and the bothered: Zuma and Vavi come out to play

By Stephen Grootes 24 February 2012

Any gathering that manages to draw both President Jacob Zuma and Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is going to be a blockbuster event. Especially when it features the first public appearance of Zuma's iPad. On Thursday the National Union of Metalworkers of SA held a "political commission". It's a mark of the importance of the union movement that both figures pitched up. Vavi we expected to be worth the price of admission. And he was. But the real star of the show was Zuma. Yes. You read that right. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It’s a measure of how much things have changed over the last year that Zuma now has the political space in which to make massively important political statements, openly court the unions and take undisguised pot-shots at the ANC Youth League. Zuma usually only speaks in a directly political way when he is either absolutely furious, or feels so safe that there cannot be any negative consequences for what he says. In this case, it was the latter. And while the iPad was with him, and very much in evidence, his prepared speech was still on dead tree. Not that he stuck to it.

The sexy stuff was Zuma on the Youth League. He didn’t mention the M-word at all. But he had a real go at the League’s understanding of history. “Some people are not taught politics,” he said, “and thus you lead in any particular way”. Hmm. It’s well known within the Alliance that Malema did not have an ANC political upbringing in his younger years, before coming under Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s tutelage. Zuma went on to give us a history lesson (some may think this is boring, but he’s one of the best students of ANC history; when he does it, he is nothing short of fascinating). “It has a deliberate name, it’s not just the youth league, it’s the ANC Youth League… it’s not out there as a spare wheel, it’s an integral part of the ANC”.

And then the money sound bite: “Its constitution must be informed by the ANC constitution, it must be subordinate to the ANC constitution, its activities must be subordinate to ANC activities”.

And just in case we hadn’t got the point by now, there was the reference to how some people have misunderstood the concept of militancy, it’s not “shouting at the ANC and its leaders, no, not that one”. It would appear Julius Malema’s little hand above the head like a shower stunt during that Limpopo ANC’s conference last year had a bit of an impact with Zuma. Zuma was feeling so confident, he seemed to be almost spoofing Malema, satirising the way he speaks when his voice took on a different tone and said “You can’t then stand here and say this is our policy… you can make the noise 24 hours a day, it doesn’t change the facts of history”. Really, he gets Malema just right when he does it, the voice, the intonation, the emphasis.

If you didn’t believe me when I said Malema was history, then Zuma’s performance should convince you.

But Zuma also spent serious time courting the unions. He spoke about how he was at heart, “a worker”, about how the relationship between the ANC and unions had been “blood-tempered” during the Struggle. There was much on how it was the political consciousness of workers that had led to the ANC as it is now.

And then there was the claim that the movement’s “biggest shortcoming” was that the leaders of the bigger unions are not on the ANC’s national executive committee. “How can you not be at the centre of things, where national decisions are made?” Putting aside the interesting admission that indeed national decisions are made by the NEC and not Cabinet or Parliament, this could be seen as a jibe at Vavi, who refused to be elected to the NEC at Polokwane, while SACP’s Blade Nzimande did accept a position. (Who’s politically stronger now? Who’s more of a thorn in Zuma’s side?)

The unionists loved it all. It’s nice and affirming to be told “you must come into the inner circle”. It is an election year after all.

After his whistle-stop tour, Zuma left. A couple of hours later, Vavi arrived, unfortunately making it impossible for the two to meet and talk face to face. It might have been more fun for us than for them.

Where Zuma was the all-powerful conquering hero, Vavi was concerned, even more than that. “It’s difficult to have an open and honest discussion, any statement is interpreted in line with the prevailing political environment… there’s an intolerance of different views… comrades are even carrying knives against one another”. And that was just the warm up. “There’s a big drive to keep everyone quiet. You are either with us or against us… if you’re against us we’re smashing you”. There was also a warning that some people will have to “forgo principal” because they will be personally intimidated.

Now just to be clear, this is not because of Zuma. It’s rather, because of Zuma’a enemies. “We have said (as Cosatu) we will defend the leadership collective that emerged out of Polokwane. We will find ourselves in some trouble for that”. He’s essentially saying that the knives are out for Zuma’s friends. It’s quite a statement to make. Of course, there was no positive verifiable identification of who he means. Presumably, the tenderpreneurs. And of course, that young kitten who everyone used to be afraid of.

Vavi had another big point to his speech. It’s about a lack of political consciousness. He says that union leaders are losing touch with the people. It’s because of their lifestyles: “look at our cars… I will go back to that Audi (it’s an A7) and some will go back to the taxi-rank”… look at our “computers and iPads”. At least he includes himself in this category. He says that union “administrators, when they knock off at 4 o’clock, go and do their nails and their perfume, they don’t rush off to an ANC meeting, they go home to the suburbs to watch The Bold and the Beautiful“. His point is that the people working for unions aren’t politicised. They’re just ordinary people, living the life of a professional. And this is because, he believes, of their lifestyle. It’s now so different to that of the average worker, that they don’t have any understanding how that worker lives, and what’s important to him. It’s a valid point, one that is made every day by those with middle fingers pointed at blue light brigades. But this time the person making it has bucket loads of political legitimacy.

There are two serious messages in all of this. The first is that Zuma is feeling more than just confident. He’s actually feeling in charge, that he can do what he likes. Of course the negative applies to Malema. The second is that when someone like Vavi is worried about the movement, it’s time for all of us to get concerned. It’s going to be a humdinger of a year. But not necessarily for entirely good reasons. DM

Photo: Any event that draws President Jacob Zuma and Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu’s general secretary, is sure not to disappoint. REUTERS/iMAVERICK.


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