The odds were stacked against Zwelinzima Vavi and at the end it was he himself who handed his enemies all the ammunition they needed to deliver the deadly blow. Vavi was suspended as Cosatu general secretary at a special Cosatu central executive committee meeting on Wednesday, pending a disciplinary hearing into allegations of misconduct and bringing the trade union federation into disrepute. After already admitting to the sexual encounter at the Cosatu offices, there was little his allies could do to rescue him, although they fought a massive 10-hour battle trying to do so. To survive politically, Vavi needs to grow a thicker skin and some giant cojones. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
The grand irony of Zwelinzima Vavi’s suspension as Cosatu general secretary is that he had every intention of stepping down from the position last year. Three years ago, Vavi announced that he would retire as general secretary at the federation’s 11th national congress in September 2012. He has served in the position since 1999 and thought it was time for new blood as labour’s most powerful voice.
However, closer to the congress Vavi had to reconsider his decision to step down, as there was no obvious successor. There were fears in the federation that if Vavi did not stay on, Cosatu would be torn by infighting over who would succeed him. The two most obvious candidates would have been the general secretaries of the two biggest affiliates, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Since there was no consensus over either Frans Baleni or Irvin Jim, it was felt that it was better for the cohesion of Cosatu for Vavi to stay on.
That was before all hell broke loose.
Vavi became a thorn in the side of the ANC government and would not comply with warnings from President Jacob Zuma’s allies in Cosatu to tone down on the criticism and strong anti-corruption stance. It was one thing for opposition parties, civil society and the media to be constantly harping on government failings and corruption, but it made alliance relations completely untenable for the face of Cosatu to be leading the offensive.
For that reason, it was decided that perhaps he should be challenged for his position at the Cosatu congress last year. There were two problems with this plan – Vavi’s detractors did not have a strong enough candidate to take him on and Vavi’s allies threatened to go after Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini’s job if there was such a challenge. The Cosatu congress therefore ended in an uneasy calm with neither side putting up opposing candidates and Vavi and Dlamini retaining their positions.
But Vavi would still not play nicely with the reigning powers in the alliance and played no role whatsoever in Zuma’s bid for a second term as ANC president at the party’s Mangaung conference in December. In fact, Vavi missed most of the conference and has also dodged sharing platforms with Zuma at alliance events. It became quite clear to everyone that Vavi had serious buyer’s remorse after being a key player in Zuma’s rise to power.
The problem was that he could not avoid Zuma and criticise his government without it appearing as if this was also Cosatu’s stance. This is why Zuma’s loyalists in Cosatu realised that Vavi had to go. But the big challenge for them was how to get rid of him when he was extremely popular with the rank and file in Cosatu, had huge respect and support in civil society and a big media personality. There was no way Vavi would be convinced to go quietly and would not be tempted by any high-flying position in the ANC or government.
The only resort was to discredit him and force him out of Cosatu. A litany of allegations were then flung at Vavi, including impropriety in the sale of Cosatu’s old headquarters and purchase of a new building, as well as interference in the affairs of individual unions. Vavi, always wanting to play by the book, said he would subject himself to investigation and resign voluntarily if there was any wrongdoing that could be proved against him.
Two consecutive Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) meetings, in February and May, were centred on the allegations against him. His detractors were determined at the May meeting to have him suspended but Vavi’s allies among the affiliate unions fought back and he survived, pending the outcome of investigations into the alleged corruption and running of Cosatu.
Then the bombshell at the end of July: Vavi accused of rape. The complaint was made to Cosatu, not the police, by a junior staffer, alleging that Vavi had sex with her against her will at the federation’s offices in January this year. Vavi was rattled by the complaint and desperate to show that he did not commit rape. In his rush to defend himself, Vavi released publicly his detailed response to Cosatu refuting the complaint, an exchange of text messages with the woman, and email correspondence with the woman’s demand for R2 million and his lawyer’s response warning that her actions amounted to blackmail and extortion.
Within 24 hours of the story breaking, their two versions of the sexual encounter in her office on 25 January were in all the major newspapers. But in trying to limit the damage and exonerate himself from the serious charge of rape, Vavi committed a mistake which proved to be politically fatal later. The woman withdrew the complaint to Cosatu during the initial hearing into the matter and her reasons for doing so have not yet been publicly explained.
The withdrawal of the complaint gave Vavi and his supporters false hope that he would survive the incident. Vavi’s biggest ally, Numsa, together with the Food and Allied Workers Union and the municipal workers union Samwu, were determined to prove that the rape complaint was linked to the political conspiracy against Vavi, and the matter should therefore not be taken further.
But the information Vavi himself put into the public domain is what was used to build a case for his suspension and disciplinary hearing. Vavi’s admission to having sex in the workplace with a subordinate during office hours was sufficient for his detractors to argue that this constituted misconduct and that he had brought Cosatu into disrepute.
Vavi’s defenders knew that if the special CEC meeting convened on Wednesday went ahead, the battle for them was already half lost. It would be difficult for Cosatu as the custodian of fair labour practices to look the other way when Vavi had already admitted to so much. It was also virtually impossible to ignore the power imbalance factor in whatever relationship existed between Vavi and the Cosatu employee.
Meanwhile Vavi pulled a surprise move by making a public apology for his actions when he addressed a South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) meeting in the Eastern Cape two weeks ago. But while the apology initially appeared to defuse the situation, it too backfired as one of his closest allies and friends, Thobile Ntola, the Sadtu president, was suspended on the eve of the CEC meeting for giving Vavi the platform and for unmandated remarks that the teachers’ union accepted the apology.
Apart from the psychological blow of Ntola’s suspension ahead of the crucial meeting, it also removed a strong voice who would ordinarily speak in Vavi’s defence at the meeting. The outcome of the CEC meeting was completely dependent on the balance of forces for and against Vavi and though the previous meeting ended in stalemate, there was too much stacked against him this time.
Vavi’s supporters initially tried to question the constitutionality of the meeting and then the credentials of the affiliate unions who would decide Vavi’s future. Not all unions are fully paid up on their subscriptions to the federation and it was therefore argued that representatives of these affiliates should not be allowed to vote. The CEC meeting stood down while the presidents and secretaries of the affiliate unions held a meeting to resolve the issue.
When the CEC reconvened, there was little else Vavi’s supporters could do to run interference. One of them said afterwards that Vavi’s own approach “disempowered” them as he said he was a disciplined member who would subject himself to any process the federation wanted him to.
The game was therefore up and no amount of arguing about political conspiracies and bigger agendas could win the day in that room. Attempts to turn the tables on Dlamini and argue that he prejudiced the outcome of the meeting by stating in the media that Vavi’s actions brought Cosatu into disrepute also did not work. It was therefore decided that Vavi and the woman who made the complaint against him should be suspended pending a disciplinary hearing.
It is not yet known who will make up the disciplinary panel and the timeframes within which it should complete its work. Cosatu’s official statement on the matter, to be released on Thursday, will apparently term Vavi’s suspension as a “leave of absence”. The exact charges Vavi and the woman will face also still need to be formulated.
What now for Vavi’s political future? He has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing as yet, but with his statement is self-incriminating. The disciplinary panel will therefore have to decide on the seriousness of any misconduct and damage to Cosatu and the appropriate sanctions. But the process itself will be harrowing for both Vavi and the complainant, both of whom are under serious emotional strain.
Another CEC that will sit in September still has to consider the reports of the other investigations into Vavi’s conduct with regard to financial impropriety and running of Cosatu. Those charges were flimsy to begin with but irrespective of the outcome of those investigations, Vavi’s detractors might argue that he is a liability to the federation and not worthy of the position.
Vavi therefore needs to think strategically about his political future and whether he wants to make a decision only after all these processes are completed, and he is thoroughly humiliated. As difficult as it might be to accept, the long romance between Vavi and Cosatu is over and now an agonising break-up lies ahead.
There is much speculation about a split now looming in Cosatu with affiliates aligned to Vavi preparing to go their own way. However the affiliates can only decide to leave the federation through decisions of their full congresses. So far, only Numsa is preparing for a congress in December, which no doubt will have to consider its future in Cosatu, the alliance and electoral support for the ANC. It is likely that other unions will only follow suit if Numsa charts the path.
But Vavi cannot wait till December. He needs to chart his own path or his political career is heading for an inglorious end. He does not need to make a decision about his political home straight away, but he does need to make the hard call about his future in Cosatu.
There was a time when everyone, including Vavi, thought he and Cosatu needed each other to survive. But in its current form, Cosatu and Vavi are destructive to each other.
The suspension might be the final push Vavi needs to jump. And jump he must. DM
Photo: Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is seen at the SA State and Allied Workers’ Union congress in Ekurhuleni in the east of Johannesburg, Thursday, 30 May 2013. 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