South Africa

Vavi’s scorched earth strategy: no surrender, no retreat, no endgame

By Ranjeni Munusamy 19 August 2013

Around 4pm on Friday, 16 August, at the time a year earlier members of the police were firing live ammunition at striking mineworkers at Marikana in order to kill them, were South Africans pausing to observe the first anniversary of the nation’s worst massacre post-Apartheid? Not really. Many were titillated by the contents of a nonsensical “intelligence report” that suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi thrust into the public spotlight. Vavi seems to have opted to fight fire with fire in order to save himself. But will this earn him respect and regain public trust? Not until he’s able to show some real leadership. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The parallels between Jacob Zuma’s troubles before he became president and those of Zwelinzima Vavi now are quite remarkable, if not bizarre. Their problems arose from tensions with the presidents of their respective organisations which resulted in deep factional divides, followed by the coincidence of corruption and rape allegations, and now the emergence of a bogus intelligence report alleging a foreign influence driving their political agendas.

Vavi apparently came to be in possession of the dangerously false report, riddled with factual and spelling errors, a week before he released it publicly. Angry and emotional after Cosatu national office bearers, led by his arch adversary Sdumo Dlamini, announced his suspension as Cosatu general secretary, Vavi decided to fight back and discredit those he believed were celebrating his fall from grace.

The decision to suspend Vavi came at a highly charged Cosatu central executive committee meeting on Wednesday when his sympathisers tried by every means to prevent the decision from being taken. Vavi was put on indefinite leave pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing into his alleged misconduct stemming from a sex scandal involving a subordinate employed at Cosatu. The woman is also suspended and facing disciplinary action.

At his media briefing of Friday, Vavi said his lawyers had written to the CEC requesting that the meeting be either cancelled or postponed because they believed that a number of the people were already prejudiced and wanted his removal anyway. Vavi distributed copies of the letter from his lawyers to the CEC, along with the attached “intelligence report”. Also attached and distributed was an extract from a speech Dlamini delivered at the May CEC in which he appears to refer to the contents of the report, which alleges that the US government, through an organisation called the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), was working to undermine the South African government and funding efforts to overthrow other African governments.

Vavi’s lawyer’s letter to the CEC states “there is now clear proof” Dlamini has been distributing the documents to people who would have attended Wednesday’s meeting, “clearly in order to influence them”. According to Vavi, the Cosatu office bearers decided that the letter and documents were not relevant to the agenda items for the special CEC, and deferred the matter. Vavi therefore announced that he had instructed his lawyers to challenge the CEC decision to suspend him and subject him to disciplinary action as he had already been prejudiced and stood no chance of a fair process.

Vavi’s demeanour in the media briefing showed that he was highly emotional. His statement included quotes from Dr Martin Luther King Jr., such as “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”, which revealed he was feeling betrayed and woeful. This is precisely why he should not have been addressing the media and the country, and making statements that will have long-term implications on his own life and the political future of the country.

Although Vavi made it clear that the contents of the intelligence report are rubbish, the fact that he and his lawyers are using it as part of his defence in contesting his suspension shows that he is desperate and floundering. He has betrayed himself and his supporters by revealing this publicly. Most reasonable and well-informed people in South African society already know there are people in Cosatu, the ANC and the SACP who want him gagged or booted out, as he is far too candid and outspoken for their liking. He did not need an absurd report to expose this fact.

Vavi seems to be pinning his hopes on the report in the hope that it will have the same effect as previous disinformation concoctions purporting to be intelligence documents. In his media statement, Vavi referred to the bogus claims in 2001 that Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa were plotting a coup against former president Thabo Mbeki. He spoke of how Cosatu, elder statesman Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu spoke out against the misinformation campaign then. The allegations were investigated by the police, who found no substance to the claims, and the episode showed Mbeki to be paranoid.

He also referred to the Browse Mole Report, which emerged ahead of the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007. It made equally wild claims about a foreign plot to destabilise the country, and other African leaders planning military backing for Zuma to topple Mbeki. The report was produced by information peddlers associated with the now disbanded Scorpions unit. It was used to show how the state was involved in smearing Zuma while at the same time prosecuting him for corruption.

The difference in the Vavi matter is that he does not know where the report came from but alleges in his statement that it “has all the hallmarks of being the work of rogue elements in the intelligence community, who are in the employ of factionalists within our organisations”.

But how does he know this?

Vavi said he would be writing to the Minister of State Security and the inspector-general of intelligence to ask them to investigate whether state agencies had been abused “to divide workers’ organisations and smear individuals”. If Vavi thinks anyone in government will associate themselves with such a clearly flawed document, he is fooling himself. On Sunday, as to be expected, the Ministry of State Security distanced itself from the report, saying they had no knowledge of where it came from. According to the Mail & Guardian, State Security spokesman Brian Dube said: “We don’t know anything about that report.”

So how does Vavi now show the hand of greater powers in his demise? The mysterious drafters of the report are not his prosecutors, like in Zuma’s case. In fact there is no telling where the report came from, other than that it is a disinformation campaign targeting many people, including Vavi. And for this reason, it is unlikely that prominent leaders and organisations would stand up and protest on his behalf like they did when the other reports emerged.

The only way to link the report to his enemies is through the allegations that Dlamini distributed it to some people and quoted it in a speech to the CEC. The lawyer’s letter states that on the basis of a story in the Mail & Guardian, it was clear that the general secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) Zenzo Mahlangu and National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) general secretary Fikile Majola had read the document. But these people are already his declared enemies and were going to vote against him anyway.

In any event, Vavi is going to run into the same trouble he had when trying to stop the special CEC discussing his sexual misconduct case. How do the two matters relate?

The fact of the matter is that Vavi made an awful mistake by engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate when he knew there was already a plot to get rid of him. Apologising for this does not mean that Cosatu is unable to take action against him. Cosatu has every right to want to take remedial measures to prevent inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. And if its gender and labour policies are to be taken seriously, it cannot simply look away.

Vavi claims that the federation is now operating under double standards because it accepted Zuma’s apology when he was in a similar situation. But Zuma was not an employee of Cosatu and therefore they had no basis to take the matter further.

Of course Vavi’s enemies will exploit the situation and have jumped at the opportunity to get rid of him. But Vavi clearly does not have the benefit of a clear head and perspective to navigate his way through the mess.

According to his deputy Bheki Ntshalintshali, Vavi agreed to subject himself to the processes of Cosatu but now he wants to challenge the suspension legally. Vavi obviously cannot tear himself out of Cosatu but wants to continue to fight the rest of the elected leadership. It is clear he cannot work with them. There will now be a bigger mess, perhaps played out in court. As was witnessed with the fallout in the leadership of the Congress of the People, once a battle reaches that level, there is no turning back.

So how does Vavi envisage this fight will play out? Are the rest of the office bearers supposed to be chased out of Cosatu for plotting against him so that he might ride back in as the conquering hero? Or perhaps the parallels with Zuma will continue – there will be a wave of support from the ground up to carry him to victory.

The fact is neither Vavi nor his supporters have a plan. They have taken the scorched earth option because it saves them from making long-term decisions. Vavi says he is fighting his suspension because he does not want to surrender Cosatu to his enemies and allow it to become the “labour desk” of the governing party. But he cannot see that by getting embroiled in the muddle, he is causing himself even more damage.

Vavi stood out from the rest because of his courage and his ability to tell right from wrong. These are the qualities that made many people respect and trust him. Many people are now disappointed in him and put off by his silly tactics.

Vavi will not regain the public space he occupied by leaning on a spurious report and adding to the confusion and disorder in the alliance and in the country. He will build himself up again if he is able to accept responsibility for what he did and move on from it. He needs to stop being dictated to by his bruised ego and his emotions and start thinking rationally, no matter how difficult it may be at this moment.

Vavi must weigh his principles and what he stands for and let those dictate his next steps and his future political role in the country. In doing so, there might be some short-term setbacks and it may appear as if his enemies have the upper hand – which by his tweets seems to rile him to no end. But it is the perception of his prime constituency, the workers, and the South African public that he needs to worry about.

Therefore Vavi needs to focus on the bigger issues in the country and start articulating them again. He needs to show that he has not lost his strong voice and that he has much to give South Africa. He needs to find his place in society. By being consumed in his mess, he has given his enemies what they wanted – a distracted, discredited Vavi.

Leadership does not come from wrestling in the mud or burning everything down. It takes true grit and courage under fire. DM

Photo: Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi speaks at a news conference in Johannesburg, Thursday, 25 August 2011 following a meeting of their central executive committee. Vavi dismissed reports about division within the federation’s ranks and said Cosatu was not divided on ideological and political lines. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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