South Africa

Vavi released and unplugged: Now for the fight back

By Ranjeni Munusamy 16 August 2013

Zwelinzima Vavi was officially “released from his duties” as Cosatu general secretary on Thursday, pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing into his alleged misconduct (Zuma was “relieved” of his duties as Deputy President in 2005, in case you're wondering). So for at least a month, Vavi should be cooling his heels and pondering his future. Well, that was the intention. But Vavi is determined to prove the conspiracy against him and keep the heat on his enemies. He will hold a media briefing on Friday to do precisely that. Stay tuned for a lot more sizzling fat in this particular fire. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi isn’t really giving anybody the chance to miss him from the public space. He was not at the Cosatu media briefing on Thursday when the federation’s national office bearers announced that both he and the woman who accused him of rape were being placed on special leave and would face a disciplinary hearing in relation to the sexual encounter between them at the Cosatu headquarters in January. But he tweeted several times to his 100,000 followers on Twitter, including during the media briefing, and announced late Thursday that he would be addressing a media briefing on Friday.

The decision to suspend Vavi was taken by the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) which held a marathon meeting on Tuesday to discuss the matter. The special CEC turned out to be yet another showdown between Vavi’s allies and detractors, with affiliates such as metalworkers union Numsa trying by all means possible to block any action against Vavi, including questioning the constitutionality of the meeting.

However, after Vavi admitted at the meeting to having sex with the woman and apologised for his actions, the majority view prevailed that there should be a disciplinary process to investigate what happened and determine possible sanctions.

Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini, who led the Thursday’s media briefing and maintained a sombre expression throughout, denied enmity between him and Vavi. He said “there were no losers and no winners” at the meeting and repeatedly stressed that the unity of Cosatu remained of paramount importance.

“His admission of guilt proves that there is no political conspiracy here. He admitted his own misconduct,” Dlamini said. He said it was unfortunate that the matter was being defined as part of the political and ideological differences in Cosatu.

Cosatu deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali, who takes over the running of the federation during Vavi’s absence, said Vavi made a statement to the CEC confirming his “misjudgement” and apologised. He said Vavi had told the meeting “Don’t try to protect me. Look at the principles of the federation which are to be respected”.

The Cosatu leadership now has to appoint an “independent” person to chair the disciplinary hearing where both Vavi and the woman will be given a chance to defend themselves. The other investigations into alleged financial impropriety and misconduct in the running of Cosatu’s affairs are still in progress and the findings are scheduled to be discussed at the next Cosatu CEC in mid-September.

On the face of it, it looks as if Cosatu is walking the tightrope, trying to deal with the moral and political dilemma the case presents by the book and to make sure that the process is fair to both parties. But the situation is already a powder keg with Numsa, Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) and municipal workers union (Samwu) rebelling against the suspension in light of their belief of a bigger conspiracy to get rid of Vavi and muzzle Cosatu politically.

Despite Vavi’s commitment to co-operate in the disciplinary hearing, there appears to be a parallel mission in his camp to show that the process is already contaminated and unfair. Vavi and his supporters also appear to be bogged down in the intricacies of the current crisis and do not appear to have considered the end game. Vavi’s haste to convene a media briefing the day after his suspension was announced means that he has not given himself the time to consider the consequences and is consumed with the fight back.

Many of Vavi’s sympathisers in Cosatu, in the alliance and in civil society do believe he can bounce back from this episode if he plays his cards strategically. Some think there is still a chance for him to remain in Cosatu, although severely damaged by all the allegations against him. Others believe that he could lead a breakaway workers movement in the event of a split in Cosatu, or a civil society front in which he could champion all the issues he is passionate about: worker struggles, anti-corruption, poverty alleviation and disparities, as well as service delivery failures.

Political analyst Vukani Mde says, like former Cosatu president Willie Madisha found out in 2008, it is quite difficult to run a one-man campaign to create a rival worker movement out of nothing.

“Vavi is not obtuse or arrogant enough to believe he can do that on his own. He will need the organisational muscle of sections of Cosatu and unions like Numsa and others to get such a thing going,” Mde said.

The danger with Vavi subjecting himself to all the investigations in the hope of clearing his name is that he could end up being dismissed. Mde says the political play to rein Vavi in or silence him cannot be disregarded in how the disciplinary process unfolds.

“No matter how contrite he is, the need to have him punished will be a factor. The fact that he apologised does not lessen the guilt. It remains to be seen to what extent the disciplinary hearing is independent as there are degrees of independence. This will determine the outcome and punishment meted out,” Mde said.

Irrespective of the outcome of the disciplinary process, Vavi still has strong prospects for a political future. Mde says sexual misconduct is “not a very serious crime in our body politic”, as President Jacob Zuma’s experiences have shown. He said there might be bigger obstacles in Vavi’s way if the current investigations into corruption turned up “anything usable”.

Vavi’s future within Cosatu might be difficult but is not unsalvageable, Mde says. “He is also still a member of the ANC and SACP with a solid political constituency. He can go out on the stump and deliver votes for the ANC. As much as he is a nuisance and loose cannon, the ANC would not want him outside the fold.”

While Vavi’s future in Cosatu and the alliance might seem untenable now, there could also be leadership changes in the future, which could change the dynamic. “Anything is possible between now and 2017 (when the next ANC elective conference takes place),” Mde said.

For now, Vavi appears to be responding to developments as they happen. The two most prominent examples of leaders in the alliance who faced similar stresses are Zuma and former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema. Zuma maintained his silence publicly and let others fight his battles while he pulled the strings behind the scenes. Malema raged in the media about the conspiracy against him, kicked up a din wherever he went and made sure he remained in the public spotlight.

Zuma survived and triumphed. Malema did not.

There is something to be said for political strategy and planning your moves. Vavi will be well advised to take heed of this. DM

Photo: Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi holds a news conference in Johannesburg on Thursday, 31 May 2012. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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