South Africa

Zuma, Nzimande, Vavi: The day the music died

By Ranjeni Munusamy 12 April 2013

They were meant to be like the three tenors – singing in harmony, complementing each other’s voices and bringing new unity and coherence to the tripartite alliance. Blade Nzimande and Zwelinzima Vavi brought brains and brawn to Jacob Zuma’s campaigns to fight his criminal charges and become president. And once he did, they were to be the dream team to lead the alliance. But as they stood at Chris Hani’s graveside on Wednesday, carping at each other, it was clear just how sour their relations are; and now, their respective organisations are caught up in the fallout. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

If there was one thing former president Thabo Mbeki did not even attempt to conceal, it was his dislike for South African Communist Party (SACP) general secretary Blade Nzimande and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Relations with them begin deteriorating in the mid-1990s following the SACP and Cosatu’s vehement opposition to the Gear (Growth Employment and Redistribution) macroeconomic strategy, and any form of privatisation.

Shortly after becoming ANC president in 1997, Mbeki stepped up his criticism of Cosatu and the SACP. Once he became state president however, there were running battles as Cosatu and the SACP challenged Mbeki on his policies on Aids and Zimbabwe, as well as his belief that there was a plot to overthrow him. At an alliance summit in 2002, Mbeki stated:

“Over the past years, all manner of tensions have arisen. The relationship has often been marked more by conflict than by cooperation. I hope we are over that period, and have learnt the lesson that such conflicts do not further the revolutionary transformation neither of South Africa nor of the continent.

“The bilateral interaction that has taken place over the last few months has dealt with a lot of the matters which resulted in public friction, which were undesirable. We still need to discuss many questions. In approaching those discussions, I hope that we are informed by the understanding that we belong to one movement, that we have an obligation to the masses of South Africans and Africans, and that we do not betray their confidence in the leadership that is sitting here.”

But relations did not improve. Later that year, ahead of the ANC’s 51st national conference in Stellenbosch, Mbeki insinuated that the ANC would be better off without the “ultra-left” in the alliance – “better fewer, but better” as he put it.

As a result, Cosatu and the SACP were alienated at the Stellenbosch conference and battled to get their representatives elected onto the ANC national executive committee. The common resentment of Mbeki drew Nzimande and Vavi closer together and apart from the political collaboration between their organisations, a deeper friendship was moulded. Their mutual affection was sealed by their sense of humour, often trading jokes by SMS and teasing each other about their support for rival soccer teams – Vavi for Kaizer Chiefs and Nzimande for Orlando Pirates.

When the battle royale arose between Mbeki and his then deputy, Jacob Zuma, there was no guessing which side Cosatu and the SACP would take. Zuma’s fight for political survival became interlinked with that of the labour federation and the communist party, which is why the respective general secretaries were part of Zuma’s brains trust to fight off his corruption and rape charges. They flanked him at his court appearances and provided him with platforms from which to speak after he was fired and isolated by the ANC.

They used their organisations to drum up support for Zuma during his court cases, ensuring that there was mass support every day he appeared. The momentum of the cases morphed into Zuma’s campaign for the ANC presidency, which was driven by Vavi, Nzimande, Fikile Mbalula, at the time ANC Youth League president, and Buti Manamela, Young Communist League national secretary. Before and after the ANC’s Polokwane conference, there was close liaison between Zuma, Vavi and Nzimande on a synchronised strategy.

At the time, Vavi and Nzimande were also at the height of power in their own organisations, able to fight off dissent and make sure there was universal support for Zuma. Once Zuma became state president however, things fell apart.

Zuma appointed Nzimande as minister of higher education and training, which Cosatu did not approve of. Nzimande’s deputy in the SACP, Jeremy Cronin, was appointed deputy minister of transport. Vavi was very expressive of concerns that Nzimande and Cronin’s fulltime roles in government would lead to neglect of the SACP. This angered Nzimande as he now had to consistently justify his appointment, arguing that it was a SACP decision that party leaders should take on leading roles in government.

But the real fallout came when Nzimande purchased a R1.1 million 7-series BMW as his official vehicle. Vavi was scathing in his condemnation, leading to much embarrassment for Nzimande. Their relationship has never been the same, with Nzimande feeling betrayed that his closest ally shamed him and Vavi feeling disappointed that his friend and comrade should have known better.

Their organisations lined up behind them, with Cosatu keeping up the pressure on the SACP about its split focus due to its leaders being in government, and the party sniping at Vavi for being a populist. At the same time, Cosatu’s disenchantment with Zuma’s presidency was growing when it realised that all its pre-election dreams of government swinging more to the left once he took over would not be realised.

Despite the three having agreed before the election to meet regularly to keep the alliance relationship healthy and to have greater co-operation on big issues, this resolve dried up once Zuma and Nzimande got caught up in government work and Vavi became more critical of delivery failures and on issues such as labour brokers and e-tolling. 

Vavi realised that the romance was over when leaders within Cosatu close to Zuma and Nzimande started campaigning to remove him as general secretary ahead of last year’s Cosatu national congress. At the September congress, it became clear that Vavi no longer had the might of the two-million strong federation behind him when he spoke as there were clear divisions among the affiliates. Behind-the-scenes manoeuvres prevented a full showdown at the congress, and Vavi and Sdumo Dlamini, the Cosatu president, retained their positions despite being in opposite camps.

Vavi was noticeably muted ahead of the ANC’s Mangaung conference, not participating in any way in Zuma’s bid for re-election. Nzimande however, was firmly in Zuma’s corner, even though he is said to have lost his place in the president’s inner circle and is increasingly politically isolated within the ANC.

It is in this context that the three former close allies appeared on the same platform this week at the memorial service for Chris Hani on the 20th anniversary of his assassination. While Zuma, Vavi and Nzimande were previously the co-stars at most public appearances five years ago, it has become a rare sight to see them together.

But the tension and hostility was difficult to conceal, even though this was a solemn occasion in memory of a man all three loved and respected.

Vavi used the occasion to show his disappointment at government performance and to drive home the point that Hani, unlike Nzimande, would not have abandoned the SACP for a high-flying position in government. Before his death, Hani famously said: “The perks of a new government are not really appealing to me. Everybody would like to have a good job, a good salary… but for me that is not the be-all of struggle. What is important is the continuation of the struggle… the real problems of the country are not whether one is in cabinet… but what we do for the social upliftment of the working masses of our country.”

Vavi said Hani “lived only the finest traditions of our movement”, and while a loyal cadre “never shied away from controversy”. Vavi tried to show that he was not out of line by being outspoken against the ANC and government as he was following in Hani’s footsteps of challenging the leadership.

“The most celebrated example is the ‘Hani memorandum’ which he wrote on behalf of comrades in exile who were frustrated by the leadership’s lack of urgency to step up the military offensive. He denounced the then leadership’s lack of accountability, draconian discipline, nepotism, corruption and favouritism, which he believed could have destroyed the movement,” Vavi said.

Hani would have been “appalled by the scale of greed and crass materialism of the new clique of tenderpreneurs, and all those who see access to political office as a ladder to personal wealth”, and would never have tolerated the levels of corruption, fraud and squandering of public resources, Vavi said.

The cut at the jugular: “Chris Hani’s life epitomised the principle of selflessness. He was prepared to sacrifice all for what he believed in. At a time when many leaders were seeking jobs as government ministers or officials – with better salaries – Chris Hani took on the lowly paid, but politically crucial, position of general secretary of the SACP.”

Nzimande, obviously, came back fighting. His counter-attack was already in the text of his speech so he probably anticipated that Vavi would take the gap and use Hani’s words to throw a killer punch.  

“As we remember and celebrate the life of Comrade Chris, it is also important that we are not selective or try to vulgarise his life and some of the things he said. Some in our ranks try to use the statement by Comrade Chris that he was not interested in joining government to try and rubbish SACP decisions about participating in our own government. They say what Chris said should have led the SACP not to participate in government, including its most senior leadership.

“Where would Chris have been if he had lived into the post 1994 era? Frankly we do not know, except that he would have gone to where the ANC and SACP would have deployed him. Because Comrade Chris was disciplined he would have set aside his own personal preferences and accept organisational deployment, including going into government if it was so decided,” Nzimande said.

“We must persuade some of our comrades not to try and do the impossible; the dead and the departed cannot be deployed. Let us not try and deploy Comrade Chris in 2013 when he passed away in 1993. Rather let us treasure the memory of Comrade Chris, and that memory must not be used opportunistically,” he hit back at Vavi.

Zuma, also stung by Vavi’s consistent criticism, sided with Nzimande. He related, off the cuff, how he challenged Hani privately during a trip the two took to the Eastern Cape, about his determination not to join government. However Hani was killed before they were able to have further discussions on the matter, Zuma said, leaving open to interpretation whether the former Umkhonto we Sizwe chief of staff could have been persuaded otherwise had he not died.

And to counter Vavi’s point about the deceased leader’s candidness, Zuma said Hani was “outspoken yet mindful of organisational boundaries”. Hani never used one organisation in the alliance against another, he said.

“He knew what to say, how to say it, and where to say it… It would be sheer opportunism to use the name of Chris Hani to do anything contrary to the maximum unity of the alliance,” said Zuma.

With Zuma, Vavi and Nzimande’s relationship at its lowest point – using Hani’s grave as a platform from which to snipe at each other – it remains to be seen whether they will attempt to repair it ahead of next year’s election. With their fractured relationship resulting in strained relations in the alliance, this would make for an awkward election campaign. Vavi, in particular, will be in a quandary as he cannot simply make himself scarce as he did before Mangaung. He will be expected to join Nzimande and Zuma on the campaign trail and drum up support for the president’s bid for a second term as state president. He will also have to restrain himself from saying Nzimande and co should not return to government.

Zuma and Nzimande, on the other hand, will have to be tolerant of criticism to give the impression that they acknowledge government’s shortcomings and are willing to address them.

So perhaps the three tenors will sign up to sing together again, nationwide, in 2014 tour – although it will take a lot of pride swallowing and pretence for them to do so. DM

Photo: Our apologies to Three Tenors, Reuters and our selves for butchering of some fine photographs. (By Daily Maverick)

PS. And just because it’s Friday, here’s Nessun Dorma to show you how three tenors should sound.


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