South Africa

Vavi under fire once again. Vavi unperturbed.

By Sipho Hlongwane 1 March 2013

Very well played, Mr Zwelinzima Vavi. Handed a hospital pass after a paper said Cosatu, which he runs, was investigating him for impropriety relating to the sale of two buildings, he came out publicly and just got on with it. He laughed off any and all allegations, and then put on his serious face to deliver stern political news. The exact sort of thing that has made him one of South Africa’s most liked politicians. It’s a good thing that the Cosatu general secretary is so focused. The shopping list of issues he read out on Thursday is long. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

If Oscar Pistorius ever needed a lesson in how to handle bad publicity, then he could not have had a better teacher than Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Just a day before he was supposed to deliver the statement of the federation’s central executive committee (CEC), the Mail & Guardian ran a story about him facing an internal investigation with regards to the sale of Cosatu’s old headquarters in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, and the purchase of a new one just around the corner.

It could have been an awkward morning for Vavi, yet he emerged from the press conference having laid down a strong ultimatum to his detractors. It was a splendid public relations coup; and a reminder that the master of political PR earned his public goodwill and wasn’t given it.

While Vavi joked around during the conference, the allegations against him clearly made him upset. He called on anyone who could prove that he was indeed corrupt to come forward.

“I will just leave because that will be the worst form of betrayal,” he said. “I will just walk because it means that I have no bloody credibility whatsoever.”

According to the M&G, the CEC took the decision to investigate Vavi at a meeting concluded on Wednesday.

The paper said: “Three senior Cosatu leaders, who attended the tense meeting, told the M&G the body resolved to establish the committee of presidents and general secretaries of affiliates be formed to determine terms of reference and appoint an independent commission of inquiry to investigate all the allegations against Vavi. They will investigate all the allegations raised during the meeting.”

While the report claimed that Vavi was in tears in the meeting, and started negotiating with his detractors when he realised that he could be on his way out, he himself laughed the whole thing off.

Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini was also at the conference, tasked with the specific purpose of talking for Vavi on the matter of the investigation.

A Cosatu leader said that the leak was most probably driven by intra-federation rivalry. He suspected that it likely came from union bosses opposed to Vavi’s strong criticism of the African National Congress, the federation’s biggest political ally, and was meant to discredit him.

Vavi is a loud critic of the ANC’s lacklustre reaction to corruption from within its own ranks, which has drawn him the ire of several federation affiliates including the National Union of Mineworkers, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, and also the South African Communist Party. It is understood that Vavi’s politics have placed him at loggerheads with Dlamini.

Vavi himself said that the federation’s affiliates did not agree on everything and that an internal and robust debate was being presented to the press as if he was in trouble.

One of Vavi’s most prominent public campaigns has been to silence the dark recesses of the ANC, and that has put him in direct enmity with the corrupt elements of the party. He’s called them hyenas (and other colourful epitaphs), and delivered thunderous homilies dooming the country should they take over the party. But in the process he has also sniped at the party as a whole and has criticised President Jacob Zuma. The list of people who have tried that and failed miserably is long and impressive. It includes former president Thabo Mbeki, former national director of public prosecutions Vusi Pikoli, former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and a number of ANC leaders who suddenly found themselves without a seat on the national executive committee of the party after the December elective conference.

However, for Vavi’s enemies, now is not the time to play their hand. The man has bucketloads of public goodwill. He would win any media battle that anyone would try and start now. It would be an act of monumental bravery or stupidity to try and outgun him in a full frontal attack. The real problem isn’t actually the capital he has with the chattering classes – it is the genuine political capital he has on the ground, in the townships and on nearly every worksite in this country. The ANC will not have forgotten the fact the Vavi was the only senior ANC-affiliated leader who could openly campaign for the party in Port Elizabeth, after furious mobs threatened anyone who came calling.

Then there’s the fact that he has survived bigger scandals without so much as a scratch to show for it. In 2010, M&G ran a story that said that Vavi’s wife Noluthando was being paid R60,000 a month to market financial products to unionists, soon after he called on the government to institute lifestyle audits against certain individuals who appeared to be benefiting via their political connections. Nothing came of that, and he was elected to be the general secretary at last year’s congress with nobody running against him.

The strategy that stood him good stead in 2010 has been applied once again. While he’s not currently taking press questions about any alleged investigation – thus putting Dlamini, as the next senior Cosatu leader, in the delightful position of having to defend someone he’d rather not – he got on with his job in a massive way at Thursday’s conference.

First off: the ongoing union rivalry in the platinum mining belt. Dlamini said that they had met with one of the top three companies after it emerged that management was actively encouraging National Union of Mineworkers (Cosatu’s biggest affiliate union) to quit and join the new Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), for “safety reasons”. After years of Amcu-NUM rivalry, things came to a head last year, leading to a mass exodus of members towards the new union. Many work sites saw workers organise into worker committees, some of which carried out scare campaigns against NUM shop stewards and members. However, Vavi said that hundreds of people are now returning to NUM.

The CEC reaffirmed its support of the ANC for the coming years, after listing all the complaints they have against the ruling party. The list is long. It includes the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (“we remain totally opposed to the drive to the commodification of the inner city highways”), the Protection of State Information Bill (“there are still areas where the bill needs to be improved”), labour brokering (“Cosatu remains committed to [taking] up campaigns for a total ban of the labour brokers”) and the new Eskom tariffs (“the campaign against Eskom’s proposed five-year 16% per yer tariff increases is in full swing, with pickets and interventions at Nersa hearings by affiliates and provinces”).

Vavi got to say all these things to a roomful of journalists who were there to ask if he was in trouble or not. He was more than an hour late to the press conference, having apparently been in a meeting with national spokesperson Patrick Craven. The press release was very well written, and the quotes were sharp and glittery. Feel free to insert your own knowing smile here.

Having summoned journalists to put out fires, Vavi has walked away looking exactly like the hands-on leader of the country’s biggest mass organisation. We got Vavi the General-Secretary, not Vavi the Corrupt. And that ultimatum? Genius. Nobody is going to step forward. Not without signalling to Vavi where his most desperate enemies in Cosatu lie.

Like we said before: very well played, Mr Vavi. He killed a bad story dead, while making sure that the television crews got the right shots of him saying things like “We are totally opposed”. Somewhere, his enemies are seething.  DM

Photo: Johannesburg, South Africa, 28 February 2013. Zvelinzima Vavi and other Cosatu heads briefed media after their central executive committee meeting. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)


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