Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s Twitter bio reads as follows: “There can be no greater honour than to serve the working class”. On Thursday he informed his over 91,000 followers on Twitter that it was true that he was under pressure from members of his family to quit politics but clarified “…that’s them, not me. Going nowhere!”
It has been his consistent refrain this is the campaign to remove him as the general secretary of the trade union federation began. Vavi believes the attack on him is an attack on the working class and therefore he needs to fight all the allegations against him and remain as the face and voice of Cosatu to protect the workers of South Africa.
It is true that throughout his tenure as Cosatu general secretary, Vavi has been outspoken against government failures, corruption, the plight of workers, abuse of public office and inequalities in society. And it is also true that since February, when the onslaught against him from within Cosatu became public, Vavi has been consumed with clearing his name and as a result less vocal on societal issues.
If there is one thing Vavi has earned respect for is the ability to speak out against the powerful, even at great cost to himself. But the truth is that this character trait has made enemies of his closest comrades and friends and he is now something of an outlaw within the Alliance. Vavi’s position became particularly untenable when he became critical of President Jacob Zuma’s leadership, which has earned him the wrath of the president’s allies in the ANC, the SACP and in his own trade union federation.
This became apparent ahead of Cosatu’s 11th national congress last September when a group of unions led by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Educational Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) considered putting up a candidate to run against Vavi. In response, unions allied to him, led by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) then wanted to challenge Sdumo Dlamini for his position as Cosatu president. The warring factions ceased hostilities on the two senior most positions in the federation to prevent the congress from being derailed by the leadership battle.
Vavi has been treading water since then and was clearly uncomfortable in the run-up to the ANC’s Mangaung conference, when it became apparent that the Zuma camp was heading for a landslide victory. He got into further trouble when he tweeted at Mangaung that the outcome of the elections was “a formula for disaster, that it shows disunity”.
The ceasefire held for only a few months, and at Cosatu’s central executive committee (CEC) meeting in February it became clear that there was now a concerted effort to dislodge and silence Vavi. Concurrent with allegations that he manipulated the sale of Cosatu’s old headquarters for personal benefit and also acted improperly in securing the purchase of the new building, Vavi has also been accused of being politically disloyal. He stands accused of collaborating with opposition parties and rival unions, which seeks to undermine his standing in the Alliance and also explain why he is so critical of the ANC government.
It came to a point where just about any possible allegation was thrown at him in the hope that something would eventually stick. All of these allegations are being probed by a two-person facilitation team, which is in the process of receiving submissions from affiliate unions and Cosatu office bearers.
According to Business Day, among the submissions are claims that Vavi is building a “personality cult”, which, like many of the other allegations against him, is difficult to make tangible as an offence. Cosatu’s finances are also being audited in the hope that some sort of fraud or corruption will be exposed. Vavi appears quite confident that none of the allegations can take him down and has offered to resign if anything of substance is proved against him.
The investigation reports are due to be considered at Cosatu’s CEC meeting at the end of August, and it is possible that his fate will be decided then.
In the meantime, Vavi is clearly spooked by continuing death threats against him. He has spoken publicly several times about threats that he would be poisoned or killed in a car-crash and he has taken it seriously enough to boost his security detail and become distrustful of all forms of electronic communications. Paranoia levels are rocketing in Cosatu with Vavi and others aligned to him suspicious that they are under surveillance and their communications intercepted.
Although Vavi has reported some of the threats to the Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and police management, they are clearly not interested in quelling his fears or getting to the bottom of the allegations – whether they are real or a scare tactic. The South African security and intelligence agencies are also notorious for getting involved in factional battles in the Alliance and it is therefore not farfetched to believe that Cosatu is on their radar.
Daily Maverick understands that word got around at the ANC national executive committee lekgotla last weekend that an allegation of sexual harassment against Vavi has been reported to Cosatu. The allegation, which appears to stem from an affair with a staff member, has increased pressure on Vavi as it will now put his personal life in the spotlight.
It is the context of all these allegations and threats that Vavi revealed on Thursday that his close family members want him to quit politics. “Well, I hear that they are plotting now that they will convene a family imbizo in December, to plead with me to walk away because they think that it’s not worth it. They fear that one day I will arrive back home on my back in a black coffin,” he told eNCA.
He also said that his wife has been his pillar of strength. “My wife is a very, very strong character, I must say, and without her support I will be perhaps in deeper water than I am today.” This is probably an indication that his wife will stick by his side to help him navigate the harassment charge.
Even if Vavi survives the Cosatu investigations due to insufficient evidence, does he genuinely believe that he can dust himself off and continue in his role as general secretary and the chief defender of the working class? Does he believe his detractors will back off after all this and allow him to continue to be a thorn in Zuma’s side for another term? It is clear that the intention is to pelt Vavi with so many allegations that he becomes hamstrung and a discredited voice. And then they want him to limp off into the political wilderness.
Vavi needs to cease to be a hopeless romantic about Cosatu and the Alliance. If he continues simply to fight fires in the hope that reason and the interests of Cosatu members will eventually triumph, he might as well kiss his career goodbye.
Vavi’s family members are correct about one thing: his time in Cosatu has run its course. His position in the federation has become untenable and his hope that the vast membership of Cosatu will come to his rescue is a pipe dream. Cosatu members are trying to hold on to their own jobs and cannot liberate Vavi from the political juggernaut he is caught in.
Vavi needs to liberate himself. He needs to quit, yes, but he needs to quit Cosatu, not politics.
Vavi is a powerful political figure and his track record his earned him trust and credibility across the political spectrum. People across race and class divides genuinely believe that he is a leader with integrity who looks out for the public good and is strongly opposed to corruption and abuse of power. He needs to harness the public trust and goodwill and reinvent himself outside Cosatu.
Finding a political home will not be easy for Vavi as he is devoted to the ANC, but is uncomfortable in it now. The current and developing political parties could try to woo him but he might find his own politics too divergent from theirs. Vavi needs to decide what he stands for politically – whether it is to continue to “serve the working class” or to broaden his focus – and let that define his political place. This could be fighting from inside to realign the ANC or outside to oppose it.
It will require real courage to take the next step knowing the seismic activity will ensue once he does. But that step needs to be taken. Vavi might not end up in a body bag, but his Cosatu political career certainly will. DM
Photo: Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is seen at a news conference in Johannesburg, Thursday, 25 August 2011 following a meeting of their central executive committee. Vavi dismissed reports about division within the federation’s ranks and said Cosatu was not divided on ideological and political lines. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
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