In a liberal fantasy world, South Africa’s Robin Hood, Zwelinzima Vavi, and Iron Lady Helen Zille would combine forces to take on the evil, rotting empire. In the real world, Zille would run away shrieking should Vavi turn up at Leeuwenhof with two million angry workers and Irvin Jim. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
In 2007, in a whirl over preparations for his wedding, Zwelinzima Vavi was getting quotes from service providers for some of the special features of the carefully planned fairy-tale ceremony.
“They are quoting me such high rates as if Cosatu is getting married,” he complained.
And that is the big problem when dealing with the Cosatu general secretary: it is difficult to distinguish Vavi the individual from the powerful trade union federation. Since he took on his position in 1999, Vavi has become the face and voice of Cosatu. Through his charisma and candour, he has given the federation a dynamic personality and tremendous political clout.
So if it is true that Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille has secret dreams of Vavi in her corner, it may be wise for her to decide who exactly she wants: the working-class hero or his body of two million workers – because they kind of go together as a package.
Vavi revealed to the Sunday Times that Zille had tried to recruit him to join the DA, making advances during soccer matches in 2010, followed up with SMSes. Vavi claims Zille tried to pursue him repeatedly with the words “Can you imagine… me and you, the power?”
Vavi says this repulsed him because “ideologically, me and the DA is like trying to mix water and paraffin”.
Zille denies making the approach to recruit Vavi but claims there has been a lot of friendly banter and co-operation on issues of mutual interest. She revealed in an interview on Talk Radio 702 that Vavi sat next to her at the funeral of former KwaZulu-Natal Judge President Herbert Msimang and, in a comical twist of fate, they had to sing off the same hymn sheet during the service – the irony of which did not escape either of them.
The idea of a political dalliance between Zille and Vavi has titillated the chattering classes and liberal set, desperate for any kind of strong opposition to the ANC monolith.
This week the auditor-general Terrence Nombembe confirmed what many had suspected and feared – the pillars of governance are collapsing and, despite repeated warnings, the Zuma administration is totally impervious.
Add to this the endless stories of corruption in the state and the unfolding horror of the police crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli’s mockery of the criminal justice system and it becomes evident why society is crying out for moral leadership.
Cosatu and the DA have both been waging gallant and effective fights against the Protection of State Information Bill and the Gauteng e-tolling system. If their campaigns have run parallel to each other, the lining up of Cosatu’s large and formidable membership alongside the parliamentary opposition with strong legal know-how has posed a formidable challenge to the ANC government.
But the gaping hole in the DA-Cosatu non-alliance was evident when the trade union federation led nationwide protest action in March against the e-tolling system and labour brokers, which Zille half supported. Whereas Cosatu believes labour broking is a deadly evil that erodes workers’ rights, the DA believes it has a place in society. As a result, Zille was informed that she was not welcome to the Cosatu march.
But stranger alliances across ideological lines have formed in South Africa and other parts of the world, either as election pacts, coalition governments or issue-based opposition. The ANC previously teamed up with its arch-enemy in KwaZulu-Natal, the IFP, to form an unwieldy coalition to rule the province.
Various opposition parties have formed alliances against the ANC during elections to oppose legislation in Parliament. So while an alliance between the DA and Cosatu looks inconceivable now, some form of co-operation could be possible down the line. However, such co-operation would be more in the DA’s interests than Cosatu’s.
While the DA has grown in representation in Parliament and in some provinces, it remains unable to pose any real challenge to the ANC’s dominance at the polls.
For the DA to progress beyond asking ANC ministers tricky questions in Parliament and offering the media clever sound bites, it needs strong black leaders rooted in the liberation movement and a swell in numbers.
Cosatu has both and its appeal to the liberal lobby lies in the fact that it has consistently been the voice of reason, speaking out against corruption and government excesses and championing the interests of the poor. During the Thabo Mbeki presidency, when critics of government were mocked and forced into submission, Cosatu was a brave voice speaking out against Mbeki’s absurd beliefs on Aids and bizarre policy on Zimbabwe.
However, there was a level of disenchantment, fortified by some sections of the media, when Cosatu was in the forefront of Jacob Zuma’s defence during his criminal trials and led the campaign for his election as ANC president. But as soon as Cosatu’s disappointment with the Zuma presidency became evident, the federation, particularly its general secretary, again became a media darling and a strong ally in the fight against the secrecy bill.
Cosatu also represents everything that Zuma and the former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema – the leaders of the two dominant factions in the ANC – are not. Zuma’s lifestyle, weak leadership and lack of sophistication makes middle class South Africa cringe, and Malema’s offensiveness and excesses makes them recoil.
Cosatu, through Vavi, articulates moral and principled positions on most social issues, and when it is not leading strikes, it is generally seen as the “good guy” in the alliance mix.
Cosatu cemented this role by launching Corruption Watch, an organisation led by reputable civil society personalities to investigate and expose corruption and excesses in government and the private sector. Zille revealed during the Radio 702 interview that she had also supported Vavi’s call for lifestyle audits for public representatives and had invited him to make a presentation on the issue to the Western Cape government, which he initially accepted but later backed out of.
So in the eyes of the DA constituency, the only flaws with Cosatu are the behaviour of its members during strike season and its refusal to budge on labour laws. Now the two organisations are heading for a showdown over the youth wage subsidy, which the DA believes is a job-creation mechanism but Cosatu fiercely opposes as a loophole for cheap labour.
The latest spat between Zille and Vavi is as a result of the DA’s announcement that it intends marching on Cosatu House to protest what it calls the federation’s “betrayal” of the unemployed.
This has led one of the most militant voices in the federation, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s Irvin Jim to launch a fierce counter- attack: “The DA – assisted by the white liberal media – is mounting a huge political campaign to discredit, destroy and substitute itself for the formations of the liberation movement,” he said.
“Numsa wants to serve a timely warning to the DA and the vested white capitalist class interests it represents: they are embarking on a dangerous and unwinnable class struggle with the power of the black and African working class.”
With regard to the march on Cosatu House, Jim warned: “If they now want direct confrontation, they will get it. Numsa is ready for them. We shall fight to the last woman and man to defend Cosatu and its leaders.”
So it would appear that even if Zille had a secret plan to change South Africa’s political landscape with a little help from a silver-tongued, working-class superhero, she will not be able to get Robin Hood without his merry men. DM
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall