South Africa

Cosatu: the week of reckoning

By Ranjeni Munusamy 27 May 2013

On Thursday Cosatu will hold a media conference on the outcome of its crucial three-day central executive committee meeting. It can either announce that its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, is suspended pending investigations into impropriety and misconduct, or that discussions on his future are on ice until the various probes are completed. Or that there’s a stalemate and Cosatu now needs an intervention. One thing it will not be, though, is a routine meeting and whatever happens, Vavi will not be left unscathed. It could be a week of high drama or another stitched-up, temporary truce at Cosatu House. The Trojan horse, as always, is the greater political power in the alliance. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

It is a fight that should have been over and done with at Cosatu’s 11th national congress last September. Both the positions of Cosatu general secretary and president should have been contested and decided on by the delegates through the ballot. Instead, the warring factions within the federation agreed on an 11th-hour ceasefire and decided not to put the two most senior positions to the ballot as they felt a divisive election would have crippled Cosatu. As a result, Zwelinzima Vavi and Sidumo Dlamini retained their respective positions of general secretary and president unopposed.

As it turns out, eight months later, Cosatu is wobbly at the knees, going into a three-day central executive committee (CEC) meeting which will see the same warring factions face off over the future of the same two leaders. A loose alliance of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union (Ceppwawu) and the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) backs Dlamini and wants Vavi removed or, at the very least, sanctioned.

In Vavi’s corner is metalworkers’ union Numsa, the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu), the Democratic Nursing Association of SA and the South African State and Allied Workers’ Union (Sasawu). Fawu, now publicly supported by Numsa, wants Cosatu to convene a special congress to deal with the leadership crisis. They know that Vavi’s biggest asset is his popularity on the ground and that a congress with mass participation of ordinary workers would lean in his favour.

However in a closed meeting of the senior leaders of Cosatu’s provincial structures and affiliate unions who make up the CEC, the numbers would count against Vavi. This is why his detractors want to draw as much blood this week, as Vavi’s superhero status among ordinary workers cannot rescue him when the knives are drawn in the CEC.

This is not the first time Cosatu is facing turbulence in its senior leadership. In February 2008, the former president of Cosatu, Willie Madisha, was fired by the then CEC in connection to an alleged missing donation of R500,000 to the SA Communist Party. Madisha claimed he gave the money, packed in black plastic bags, to SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, who denied receiving it. A commission appointed by the CEC to probe the matter found that “… The manner in which the president [Madisha] managed the issue of the donation to the [South African Communist Party] damaged his reputation and that of Cosatu.”

The difference in Madisha’s case was that he had very little support among the affiliate unions and therefore his removal did not cause as much commotion in Cosatu. The similarity between Madisha’s case and what is happening now with Vavi is that the fallout has much to do with relations within the tripartite alliance. Madisha was in former president Thabo Mbeki’s camp in the 2007 ANC leadership battle, while the rest of Cosatu was firmly behind President Jacob Zuma’s election at Polokwane. This caused a breakdown in trust and relations between Madisha and Vavi, and therefore had a negative effect on the functioning of the federation.

Vavi and Dlamini’s relationship is similarly damaged now, although publicly both have tried to put up a united front. The source of Vavi’s troubles now is that his detractors, led by the NUM, feel that he is too brazenly critical of the ANC government. Over time, the case against Vavi has been built up to include allegations of impropriety in the sale of Cosatu’s old headquarters and purchase of its new building. He is also accused of collaborating with opposition parties and rival unions, and interfering in the affairs of one of the affiliate unions. The most recent inclusion on the charge sheet is that Vavi is using Corruption Watch like a private investigation service to probe the unions opposed to him. (Corruption Watch denied the claims.)

The CEC is meant to decide on Vavi’s future based on the outcomes of three parallel internal inquiries. Labour lawyer Charles Nupen is examining the political issues of contention while former Samwu president Petrus Mashishi is looking into the organisational functioning of Cosatu. The auditing firm SizweNtsalubaGobodo was to conduct a forensic audit of Cosatu’s administration and finances. However the Mail & Guardian reported last week that Cosatu leaders “almost came to blows” at a recent meeting of affiliate union presidents and general secretaries where it emerged that the auditing firm had not yet been appointed by Vavi.

On the eve of the CEC, the two biggest unions in Cosatu, NUM and Numsa, drew the battle lines at respective media briefings on Sunday. Speaking after an NUM central committee meeting, general secretary Frans Baleni said the corruption probe against Vavi should go ahead as all Cosatu leaders should be held accountable for their actions and subjected to the discipline of the federation. The NUM also formally rejected the idea of a special congress saying it was “not helpful”.

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim said his union would “put up a fight” if anyone tried to remove Vavi. Speaking after a meeting of the Numsa national executive committee, Jim said his union would also reject a vote of no confidence in Vavi’s leadership.

“There is a target to undermine and isolate Vavi and kill the confidence workers have in him,” Jim said, arguing that the only way to remove the Cosatu general secretary was through a full congress. “You can’t sit in a room and say he [Vavi] is out… Out from which mandate? He was elected in a congress.”

Numsa wants the current processes abandoned, arguing that the probes had been discredited by leaks to the media.

Few people remember now that in 2006 Cosatu’s first deputy president, Joe Nkosi, resigned with immediate effect a few weeks before Cosatu’s 9th national congress. In his resignation letter, Nkosi said he was leaving because he was studying and had to look after a sick child. But a week before he resigned, Nzimande wrote a letter to Cosatu claiming that Nkosi was spying on him. Nkosi was also facing heat for his business interests and because he was seen to be an “Mbeki loyalist”.

Nobody quite remembers the allegations against Nkosi now and they were not taken further after he went away quietly. Similarly with Madisha, the investigations against him died down once he was ousted from Cosatu.

On the face of it, the allegations against Vavi look flimsy and unsubstantial. Anywhere else, they would not stand the test of justifiable grounds to sanction a person. But with Cosatu there does not need to be a watertight case. All that is needed is sufficient mud to taint the accused and to argue that whatever they are supposed to have done is damaging to the image of the federation.

The attack dogs do the rest.

Still, Vavi might survive this week due to the forensic audit not being completed. Or, his detractors might argue that his delay in appointing the auditing firm is sufficient grounds to suspend him until the completion of the process.

It will be a dirty fight behind closed doors in Cosatu House. By the end of the week, it will be clear whether Vavi will be the ultimate casualty of the system he was so instrumental in building. And like Nkosi and Madisha, he will have to decide whether he will fight back or go quietly. As Trojan horses go, it will be difficult to conquer. DM

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