It was never going to be easy to dislodge Zwelinzima Vavi as Cosatu general secretary. The allegations against him are weak and his power-base in the federation is strong; Vavi has garnered more public sympathy in his battle for survival than a rhino in a poacher’s crosshairs. But behind closed doors in Cosatu House, none of this really matters. It is who shouts loudest, who is most brutal and who can draw the most support in the room. The three-day Cosatu meeting to decide Vavi’s future ended on day two, with matters left pending until the next meeting in a few weeks. For now, Vavi lives on, but severely constrained. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
The plan of Zwelinzima Vavi’s detractors for this week’s Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) meeting was to stack the evidence against him, use any indications of wrongdoing in the multiple probes to lambaste him and then motivate for a vote of no confidence in his leadership, for which at the very least, he should be put on special leave until the completion of all investigations.
Vavi’s allies, on the other hand, wanted all the investigations to cease, arguing they were unsubstantial and discredited by leaks, a special congress to be convened to let the membership rather than the leadership decide on the fate of Cosatu, and that Vavi should in the meantime be allowed to continue his job as the voice of the working class.
Nobody really got what they wanted.
After a day and a half of heated discussions and angry exchanges, it became clear that neither side could succeed outright and that the divisions were too deep to reach any form of resolution. Interventions by ANC leaders Gwede Mantashe and Cyril Ramaphosa to talk to some of Cosatu’s leaders beforehand to defuse tensions could not prevent the CEC meeting from being abandoned without any firm resolutions.
For now, Vavi remains accused of several alleged transgressions, including impropriety in the sale of Cosatu’s old headquarters and purchase of the new building, collaborating with opposition parties and rival unions, and using Corruption Watch to investigate affiliate unions opposed to him. Since Cosatu’s 11th national congress last September, Vavi has been accused of being too vigorously critical of the ANC government, which according to his detractors, is not representative of the view of Cosatu.
Delays in appointing auditing firm Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo to investigate Cosatu’s administration and finances meant that they were unable to present a report to the CEC. Daily Maverick understands that labour lawyer Charles Nupen, who was commissioned to examine the political issues of contention in the federation, and former South African Municipal Workers Union president Petrus Mashishi, who was tasked to look into the organisational functioning of Cosatu, did not find any evidence of misconduct on the part of Vavi.
Despite this, the anti-Vavi’s faction, allied to Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini, and which includes the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), and the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU), argued in the meeting that the general secretary should be suspended. Vavi was also in firing line for his public statements, including stating that the presidents and secretaries of some affiliate unions were the source of leaks from Cosatu and were “the new enemies of the working class” who should be exposed and crushed.
But all these attacks on Vavi faced fierce opposition by other affiliates, mainly the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), which argued that the investigations against Vavi should be dropped altogether. They claimed that the investigations had been discredited by leaks and would work to further divide Cosatu.
The Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) and Numsa argued that the fallout in Cosatu was serious enough to warrant the convening of a full special congress where delegates from all unions and provinces can decide the way forward, and possibly elect a new leadership. But Vavi’s detractors are dead set against this as his source of power is in Cosatu’s mass membership and a full congress is likely to lean in his favour.
On Tuesday morning, the second day of the meeting, Vavi came in for a drubbing over his messages to over 80,000 followers on Twitter. His detractors wanted the meeting to be collapsed as they claimed Vavi was tweeting while the CEC was in progress, including thanking people for their support. There was particular objection to his tweet which read “It’s been 3 months now since I called on anyone to produce evidence that I or my family benefited in sale or purchase of COSATU buildings”. Vavi told the meeting that he had sent the tweet before the CEC began.
With the CEC meeting descending into chaos, it was agreed that the secretaries of the affiliate unions should meet to chart a way forward. It was agreed that the investigations into Vavi should continue and that another meeting be convened, possibly in two months, to revisit the issue.
The CEC meeting was also supposed to deliberate on other issues, including Cosatu’s position on the National Development Plan, e-tolling, labour law amendments and the Protection of State Information Bill.
These issues are also sticky as they are the points of contention with the ANC and government. The anti-Vavi faction wants Cosatu to tone down its opposition on these issues while unions like Numsa want Cosatu to persist in strongly protesting them. The meeting of secretaries agreed that Cosatu should convene another meeting ahead of an alliance summit in a few weeks to consolidate its position on these issues.
So the situation within Cosatu now is pretty much what it was before the start of this week’s CEC: hostile, fraught with divisions and the crosshairs are still on Vavi’s forehead. And until the next meeting, Cosatu is effectively paralysed. It remains to be seen how will the federation function with the person who is its face and voice but restrained in his statements and even his tweets. How can Cosatu continue to be a credible and critical voice of the working class if it muzzles itself?
Cosatu will hold a media briefing on Wednesday to report on the outcome of the CEC.
While the ANC, in the form of Mantashe and Ramaphosa, did try to cool things down in Cosatu, their interest is purely the effect this fallout will have on their 2014 elections prospects. A broken or split Cosatu might cause further turbulence and disillusionment among workers, which could result in eroding of electoral support for the ANC. With a significant portion of the middle class already disenchanted with the ANC, it simply cannot afford losing support among workers.
For now, the unity and cohesion of Cosatu remains a distant memory. The federation remains in tatters and crippled. It is no longer just about the survival of one Zwelinzima Vavi, but the once powerful and giant federation representing mineworkers, mechanics, teachers, nurses, railway workers and street sweepers – all those at the coalface who keep the wheels of the economy turning.
How many times did the interests of these workers come up during the course of the heated meeting which eventually stalled?
The answer to that question is the biggest shame of Cosatu right now. DM
Photo by Greg Nicolson.
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle