South Africa

Vavi-less Cosatu, Cosatu-less Vavi?

By Stephen Grootes 29 July 2013

The news about the claims involving sexual misconduct, and possibly even rape, against Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, forces the issue of his future into the national limelight. There are really only two options: either he stays, or he goes. At the moment, it looks like the range of forces against him are simply too strong for this physical giant of a man to survive in his current job. But what would Cosatu be like without him? And what would Vavi be like without Cosatu? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It’s hard to imagine Cosatu without Zwelinzima Vavi. He has been running the organisation for fourteen tumultuous years. There are people at university now who hadn’t started school yet when he took over from Mbhazima Shilowa. More than perhaps any other political organisation in the country, Cosatu has developed, to an extent, in his image. It is fierce in its fight against corruption, principled in its stance on most issues (like AIDS and Zimbabwe during the Mbeki era, e-tolls now), and the organisation to call on when you think the ANC might be doing the wrong thing.

In many ways, Cosatu has been the biggest check on the worst excesses of the ANC. As we’ve said before, sometimes we need Cosatu to stop the ANC’s corruption, and the ANC to stop Cosatu’s mad economics. Vavi has been at the forefront of all of this.

And now it looks like he might be swept away. If a newspaper billboard on Sunday, bearing the promise “Vavi sex: All the details” was anything to go by, it’s going to be very sordid indeed.

No matter what the graphic details are in this specific developing scandal, the fact is that Vavi has been at Cosatu House, and then New Cosatu House for so long, that he is the face of unity within the federation. That may be a strange thing to say when he is claiming to be the victim of a political campaign and on the verge of being ousted.

But let’s stop for a moment, and think about the first question that will be asked if he does go.

It’s simple really. The question that really matters in politics. If we depose our enemy, who takes over?

Vavi’s current deputy is Bheki Ntshalintshali. A man with a relatively good reputation, he seems to be well-liked, but he would appear to lack the political heft, the strong support base, and the natural constituency one would need to run Cosatu. Bear in mind, as always with running trade unions, they are difficult to manage: you need great political nous, and people who will back you no matter what. He would appear to lack those.

Which means that we then need to look to the two biggest unions within Cosatu, to see who they would provide. Frans Baleni is National Union of Mineworkers general secretary. He’s been in the job for quite a while, and could be forgiven for thinking it’s time for promotion. After all, the NUM really started Cosatu.

On some levels, he’d be right. He has the political sophistication, the track record and the experience. The problem is that the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) simply won’t wear it. There is not a chance they would accept a NUM candidate. The blood between the two is very bad at the moment. They both accuse the other of stealing members, and have refused to comply with a Cosatu demand that there could be only one union in each sector.

And Numsa’s Irvin Jim has been Vavi’s strongest public ally. At one point, when Cosatu started investigating what is called ‘corruption charges against Vavi’, Jim went as far as to publicly suggest that Cosatu call a special congress to deal with the matter. He knew Vavi is popular among rank and file members, and should things have gone to a vote, Vavi would have been safe, and his enemies would have been out.

But for the NUM, and those out to get Vavi, it would have been an entirely pointless exercise to finally win, and then replace him with his biggest supporter. So it can’t be Jim, or anyone from that axis within Numsa.

This basic dilemma illustrates how difficult and dangerous a position Cosatu is in right now.

Deposing leaders, for whatever reason, always leads to other, unforeseen and unwanted consequences. Look at the Mbeki recall and the launch of Cope. The fact there is no obvious candidate to take over from Vavi shows how deep the roots of tension within the federation grow, and how difficult that tension is to manage. That’s hard enough when there is already someone in the top leadership post, but it’s much, much harder when when the post is vacant and the stakes are even higher.

So if, or when, Vavi goes, could these tensions rip Cosatu apart? Perhaps, Probably not. but they would certainly weaken Cosatu significantly. The person who would gain the most from that would be President Jacob Zuma, who could stand on top of the Alliance, virtually unchallenged in every possible way.

Zuma’s control of Cosatu by proxy would bring about immediate change to Cosatu’s reality. The people who would probably feel the impact of that first would be Gauteng’s drivers, as Cosatu’s anti-e-tolling campaign could well be a thing of the past. Corruption Watch could be next.

But the people who would really lose out long term would be workers. Their main defender would not be standing up for their interests as vociferously as it has done in the past.

To be blunt, Vavi-less Cosatu would run the risk of becoming like the SACP. And the Alliance probably doesn’t need another Zuma-praise-singer.

The net result of all this could be more splintering among labour formations, more AMCU-style unions peeling off from Cosatu affiliates, with all the blood and tears that would entail. It’s happened in mining, it’s happened in transport; that process could easily accelerate.

And then we have the question of what Vavi himself would do. Would he go quietly off into the night, or would he rage, rage against the dying of his political light? If you think he’ll just shuffle off the national stage, this is obviously your first time reading this publication. Welcome. There’s not a chance that’s going to happen.

So suddenly, we would have one of the most recognisable political figures of the last fifteen years, with an impressive track record, and a largely clean past (this last incident notwithstanding), with no political home, all at a time when new organisations, like the Workers and Socialism Party, the Economic Freedom Fighters and Agang are poping up with regular frequency these days.

It’s hard to imagine Vavi joining the Wasps (love that name!), and he certainly wouldn’t contemplate joining Julius Malema for a game of croquet, let alone actually getting into political bed with him. And he would look worse in blue than King Dalindyebo does.

If he wanted to join someone, Agang would seem to be the best fit. While it’s worked hard on policy, it could do with a strong political identity, and just his joining it would provide that. Although the combination of him and Mamphele Ramphele could make you look longingly at the relationship between Mosuioa Lekota and Shilowa as a good example of peaceful relations.

Perhaps he could start something on his own, or maybe take over the running of Corruption Watch, and make it into a political force. That would certainly be a constructive use of his time.

Cosatu is clearly at a crossroads. It’s going to be hard to get rid of Vavi; it’s going to be even harder to keep him. While it’s impossible to predict what will really come next, one thing is obvious: Whatever happens, there will be more instability within the Cosatu and the Federation will be badly damaged. DM

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He’s been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

Photo: Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is seen joking with President Jacob Zuma at the trade union federation’s 11th national congress at Gallagher Estate in Midrand on Monday, 17 September 2012. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA



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