There is absolutely no doubt that Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has fierce and powerful enemies. There is also no doubt that there was sexual intercourse between him and an employee of the trade union federation. The woman claims it was rape and allegedly demanded R2 million from him; he claims it was a romantic relationship. As the scandal unfolds, Vavi’s political future hangs on whose version prevails and the strategy he adopts to fight off the latest allegation against him. But Vavi has effectively handed his enemies a loaded gun and, not surprisingly, they are aiming for his head. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Apart from the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), organisations and unions across the tripartite alliance are trying to steer clear from commenting on the sex scandal which Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is embroiled in. While it is fodder for his enemies in the federation and the alliance, sexual indiscretions are commonplace among political leaders. His detractors are therefore careful not be too publicly gleeful, lest their own closets get emptied publicly as a result.
By engaging in sexual intercourse with a subordinate at Cosatu, Vavi has surrendered his destiny to the rest of the federation’s leadership, and left himself politically vulnerable and exposed. Without consideration of all the extenuating circumstances, the imbalance in power relations counts against him and he will thus stand accused of bringing Cosatu into disrepute. Even on his version of events, this aspect will not be easy for him to counter.
It is a messy saga with two families caught in the eye of the storm with counter allegations of rape and extortion.
Vavi has admitted to having had sexual intercourse outside his marriage and apologised for that. There is now an avalanche of information in the media with both sides trying to substantiate their version of events. Apart from her written complaint to Cosatu, the accuser gave an account in the Sunday Times of her relationship with Vavi, how she came to be hired by him outside normal employment procedures and the course of events on 25 January 2013, when the sex took place.
Vavi has issued a public statement refuting the rape allegation, along with his detailed response to Cosatu on the rape complaint. He has also publicised 140 of the over 370 text messages exchanged between him and the woman – 61 of which were sent on the day they had intercourse – as well as her letter demanding R2 million for her silence and the letter from Vavi’s lawyer informing the accuser that her actions amounted to blackmail.
The accusations come at a time when Vavi is fighting for political survival with a significant lobby within Cosatu, backed by senior leaders in the ANC and SACP, determined to dislodge him from his position as general secretary and thus gag him from sustained criticism of the ANC government. Vavi is still under investigation by Cosatu in relation to the sale of the federation’s old building and purchase of the new headquarters, as well as accusations of political disloyalty.
The rape allegation is therefore manna from heaven for Vavi’s enemies. It exposed his infidelity and shattered his relatively clean public image. It undermined his stature as one of the few public figures with integrity, who the public has come to count on to speak truth to power and chief crusader against corruption and government failures. The scandal has sent shockwaves across the country with the unexpected fall from grace.
Rape and violence against women is one of South Africa’s biggest shames. Alarming statistics and incidence of extreme forms of violence continues to stun South African society, which has yet to come up with an adequate response. It is therefore even more piercing that two of the country’s most powerful leaders, President Jacob Zuma and Vavi, have faced the allegation.
There are obvious parallels between the Zuma rape case and the accusation Vavi now faces. Both came at times when they were under investigation and enormous political pressure. Both felt under siege and paranoid, and yet succumbed to sexual temptation when they should have had their guard up. And in both cases, claims of a political conspiracy aiding the rape charge are intertwined.
But while Zuma already had momentum on the ground and strong political support, notably from Cosatu and the ANC Youth League, Vavi does not have a powerful support base backing him. Apart from Numsa and Fawu, and a few smaller unions, the big players in the alliance are likely to let him hang out to dry. So while Zuma did not have to do much of the heavy lifting himself, Vavi and small group of allies have to keep the conspiracy theory afloat to contextualise the allegations against him and the complainant’s responses.
Political analyst Vukani Mde says the other crucial difference is that the complainant in the Zuma case reported the matter to the police. “So the speculation (in the Vavi case) is on the basis of an allegation but no charge. It puts the allegation in the realm of politics rather than the legal system. When a matter is reported to the police, it demarcates the process and gives the woman the protection of being an official complainant in a criminal case. The fact that she (Vavi’s accuser) has not taken that step frames how people react to her,” Mde said.
In the text message exchange, the woman informs Vavi that his opponents had been trying to lure her to cooperate with them, giving credence to the conspiracy theory. In his media statement, Vavi says: “For years now I have been dealing with consistent threats to my life, political assaults and efforts to destroy my contribution to the struggle of the working class and the poor in this country. Lately as we all know, these efforts to destroy me have intensified. I am unable not to view this matter in the same light.”
Mde says the latest allegation against Vavi cannot be viewed “outside the prism of what is happening inside Cosatu”. “If there are some people who are using her or what is happening to her as a way of getting to Vavi, that is probably the most alarming thing about this as it suggests that people are not above using an allegation of rape for political gain. I cannot think of any political trend that can be more detrimental to the legitimate fight against sexual abuse and violence,” Mde said.
While Zuma survived the rape charge and rode the crest of the wave to fight off the corruption charges, won the presidency of the ANC and eventually became state president, it remains to be seen what Vavi’s game plan is.
He appears before a Cosatu inquiry on Monday to respond to the rape allegation. It is not clear as to the procedure the federation will employ to decide the matter or how long this will take. While Vavi has already declared that he plans to fight to keep his position in Cosatu, he could very well be asked to step aside or suspended while the matter is being investigated. While with the allegations of financial impropriety he was able to continue his job, it might be more difficult for him to continue to do so now considering that the accuser is employed in the same building.
Vavi’s supporters are arguing that he should be considered innocent until proven guilty but his detractors say he is already too compromised by engaging in sexual relations with an employee over whom he exercises power and should therefore step down from his position.
The situation is made even more difficult considering that Cosatu is not a court of law and does not have the ability to assess the evidence in a rape case. However, the complaint is lodged only with the federation so the merits cannot be decided by an independent and credible legal body.
Mde says Cosatu could find Vavi’s conduct with an employee to be inappropriate and that he misused his power. “This could be the smoking gun Vavi’s detractors have been looking for unsuccessfully up till now. If the internal process finds that he sexually exploited a subordinate, they could separate him from his position.
“This is the most disappointing aspect for those who support Vavi, that he put himself in that position. It is almost suicidal,” Mde said.
Why Vavi succumbed to his sexual desires at a time he is so politically vulnerable will remain beyond comprehension. But he is one of many politicians in South Africa and around the world whose sexual misconduct led to their fall from grace. Many have been able to shake off the scandals and resurrect their political careers but many others have not.
Mde says this is not an extraordinary phenomenon as men in positions of power tend to behave badly without consideration of the consequences. “They use their positions to gain sexual gratification from star-struck younger women impressed by the power. Most happen behind the scenes and never come out. But now and again the veil is lifted on the sordid world of power and sex.
“Powerful men sometimes confuse women’s willingness to serve them with servicing them. Sometimes it is like that but not always,” Mde said.
During his 14 years at Cosatu’s helm, Vavi has never been so vulnerable, so publicly exposed in the windy space where friends are few and enemies are baying for his blood. As he ponders his next move, the undeniable truth – that the trouble was brought upon him by no-one but himself – must leave a bitter taste in his mouth; Vavi has learned the hard way that way too often we are our own most vicious enemies.
There are a few things that might count in Vavi’s favour. He has not run away from the issue and he has apologised for his infidelity. He respects the public enough to have communicated his position. His track record in fighting for workers’ rights is impeccable and he has distinguished himself as an anti-corruption crusader. He has a lot of goodwill and if he is able to clear his name, he can win back public trust.
Vavi might not have the durability of the ultimate Teflon man who walked this path before, but he is a tough political player. He can survive – provided no more skeletons fall out of his closet. DM
Photo: Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi is seen at a news conference in Johannesburg following the trade union federation’s central executive committee meeting, Thursday, 1 March 2012. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall