Zwelinzima Vavi is by no means out of the woods. The sudden withdrawal of the rape complaint against the Cosatu general secretary might release him from having to answer to the serious allegation of sexual assault, but he still has a long, treacherous road to navigate to clear his name and escape the political noose. Cosatu has yet to spell out the process it will embark on to deal with the admissions Vavi made, in which he implicated himself in misconduct. But the real showdown will be at the next central executive committee meeting, where Vavi’s Cosatu destiny will be decided. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY and GREG NICOLSON.
In the course of last week, it became clear to Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi that his life was about to fall apart. Word of the official grievance of sexual harassment lodged against him by an employee at Cosatu was spreading rapidly in political circles and it was a matter of time before it was splashed in the media. His decision to follow the advice of his lawyers and lay a charge of extortion against the woman, based on a letter of demand for R2 million she has sent to him, meant that there was no turning back from the feud that had developed between them.
The storm was coming.
He and his family braced for the public humiliation of his affair with the Cosatu staff member being exposed. Vavi decided that the best way to manage the fallout and fight off the rape charge was to admit to his indiscretion and make available the evidence in his possession which could show the history of the relationship he had with the complainant.
In his haste to exonerate himself and offset the oncoming media onslaught, Vavi released the documents, including a printout of some of the over 370 text messages he exchanged with the woman. He conducted media interviews in which he denied the rape accusation but admitted to consensual sex with the woman and apologised for being unfaithful to his wife.
He could not have anticipated that on Monday, during the course of a hearing for Cosatu officials to assess the complaint against him, the woman would withdraw her grievance. As things stand, all that exists before Cosatu and in the public domain is Vavi’s trail of documents and admissions which show that he had sexual intercourse with his subordinate, in the workplace, during office hours. The documents also show that he had an unusual relationship with the woman, through a protracted exchange of messages and cash payments to her for what she claimed was therapy.
Whatever process Cosatu now employs to deal with matters still on the table stemming from the sexual harassment complaint, Vavi’s own documents and statements will be used against him. Speaking on SABC radio on Monday morning, Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini made it clear that it was not the federation’s decision to release all the information on the its official media mailing list and website. He also said that Cosatu had intended to communicate the lodging of the grievance and the process to be undertaken to deal with it but did not do so when the avalanche of information became public.
This means that apart from possible charges of misconduct for having sex with a subordinate at Cosatu’s headquarters, Vavi could also have to answer as to why he used the federation’s machinery to put out personal information on another employee and did not wait for Cosatu to explain the situation.
On Monday, once the complaint was withdrawn during the sexual misconduct grievance hearing at Cosatu House, Vavi announced the development himself on Twitter. “The complainant withdrew the grievance after just 2hrs into the process. Thanks to so many who supported my family. Statement following.”
He later released a media statement, in his personal capacity, confirming the withdrawal and that the grievance was “finalised”. Vavi also said in the statement that the extortion complaint he laid against the woman was still in place and he hoped the police would deal with the matter expeditiously.
“In the light of the extreme damage that has been done to my reputation, I will consult with my lawyers to consider any further actions about this matter,” Vavi said in the statement, indicating he wanted to sue the accuser for defamation.
Cosatu is expected to only speak on the matter on Tuesday, and will possibly spell out the next steps to deal with the matter. But in media interviews on Monday afternoon, Dlamini said the federation had not yet received “official information” from the woman that she was withdrawing the allegation.
Whatever happened behind closed doors during the hearing that led to the woman reconsidering her complaint might not be disclosed by Cosatu. But it is quite clear that her decision to only report the occurrence of sexual intercourse between her and Vavi six months after the fact and not to the police would be difficult to explain. Contradictions in her version of events, including the recording of a conversation between her and Vavi, which she initially claimed was made by his political opponents, would have also undermined her credibility.
It could also be that the sheer enormity of what she was caught up in weighed down on her. In the exchanges between her and Vavi, she indicated that she was aware that he had powerful enemies. But the explosion of the issue in the media would have brought home to her that Vavi is one of the country’s most popular leaders and that the dispute to be arbitrated by Cosatu and a parallel process through the legal system on the extortion charge meant she would remain in the media spotlight for some time. It is possible that this proved too daunting for her.
Whatever the reason, the woman remains employed at Cosatu and the federation would have to take this into account when it decides how to proceed on the matter. It could prove to be untenable for one or both of them to continue working in the same environment with their relationship having soured so badly. As the custodian of fair labour practices, Cosatu needs to project itself as having acted reasonably and impartially in settling this matter, while upholding the law and the accuser’s and Vavi’s rights.
But considering the claims of a conspiracy fanning the complaint, the context of the divisions in the federation, as well as the ongoing investigations into allegations against Vavi of impropriety, Cosatu is also manoeuvring through a minefield. Cosatu’s officials will also be weary about their actions so as not to provoke any further backlash from the affiliate unions.
While there had been initial reluctance to pronounce on the matter, Cosatu unions started to speak out more boldly on Monday. For those leading the opposing factions – namely the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) – it was important for them to set the tone so that others aligned to them may follow suit.
Vavi’s supporters know that their man is heavily dented by the accusation and his admissions and therefore the best way to minimise the damage is to contextualise the complaint in terms of the campaign to discredit and oust him.
Speaking after the withdrawal of the complaint, Numsa’s general secretary Irvin Jim said: “We are vindicated as Numsa in that we have consistently kept our trust in Zweli, that Zwelinzima Vavi has no capacity to rape anyone…”
He said they were determined to find out whom it was who had tried to lure the woman to conspire with them. “The question is who are these people?” Jim said. He did not want to speculate as to why some unions, such as NUM, did not defend Vavi.
The general secretary of the municipal workers union, Samwu, Walter Theledi also came out strongly in support of Vavi. “Regrettably there are those who have clearly ‘leaked’ all manner of internal documentation to try and discredit Comrade Zwelinzima Vavi, and who have engaged in malicious rumour mongering for factional advantage. That they should want to gloat and exploit recent events is predictable if also highly regrettable,” Theledi said.
Vavi had been targeted “because he has dared to speak truth to power, on unemployment, the absence of service delivery, on corruption, and many other issues, and in so doing has incurred the wrath of those with career ambitions and those waiting to enjoy the fruits of office by legal or other means”, he said.
Speaking at a media briefing earlier NUM general secretary Frans Baleni said they did not have the facts on the matter and therefore did not want to venture into it.
“It’s very irresponsible to make such statements at this stage. For us, there is an internal process. We have not been formally informed as members of the CEC and we must be disciplined and await such due process to take its course. Because if at the moment we can throw such conspiracy theories, how are we going to make a decision in a formal meeting when facts are presented before us?” Baleni said.
This echoed the position of ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, who said it was better for the ruling party to “keep at bay”. “I don’t think we should be getting into the fray. Because if you get into the fray on the issue you are likely to say things you don’t know.”
Even though the divisions in Cosatu would have a negative impact on the ANC, Mantashe said only the federation could take a decision on Vavi’s future, and not the alliance.
That decision is likely to come at Cosatu’s next CEC, which, as Baleni indicates, will be presented with all the issues around Vavi, including the possible misconduct charges. The last CEC in May broke down, precisely over Vavi’s position and conduct in Cosatu. The next meeting, which Cosatu has to announce a date on, is likely to be even more fraught. The reports of the initial investigations of impropriety and political disloyalty would need to be presented, as well as the situation arising from the withdrawn rape allegation.
Last week we advised that Vavi’s position in Cosatu had become completely untenable and that the time had come for him to move on. Although the rape accusation has been withdrawn, it is even more unlikely for him to continue to perform his functions effectively with the damage he has endured and the deepening divisions.
The rape accusation is perhaps the most devastating thing to have happened to Vavi, but the consequences may also provide the inducement he needs to consider a role in society outside Cosatu. His image and reputation may have taken a serious knock, but he is not beyond redemption. Now he needs to find his moral centre and then his political place. DM
Photo: Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi at their collective bargaining, organising, and campaigns conference in Boksburg on Tuesday, 12 March 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine