South Africa

The Vavi files: It’s going to get messier and messier

By Stephen Grootes 9 September 2013

On Tuesday a judge in the South Gauteng High Court will face various factions that for the moment make up Cosatu, and be asked to make a decision about whether Zwelinzima Vavi was suspended legally or not. Lucky judge. They're going to be stuck in one of the bigger, messier political fights that we've had for some time. But, as always in our country, it's not the legality that matters, it's the politics. And there are some signs this is going to get messier before it gets better. As usual, the mess will involve the law, but it will be around who's really in charge, and who just thinks they're in charge. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The playing field for the legal fight is the actual meeting that saw Vavi suspended. You may remember it: it was that Central Executive Committee meeting on a Monday night. From what we can see in the legal papers that were submitted by Vavi’s champion in this, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, it was quite a fight. Not quite in the ‘should we expel Julius Malema?’ league, but close. NUMSA’s claim, dressed up in the usual Latin, is that they were bullied at the meeting. Key to this is a moment at which Cosatu President S’dumo Dlamini (and according to NUMSA, Vavi Suspender-in-Chief), basically called a meeting within a meeting of all the union’s general secretaries. They say it was this group that really decided Vavi’s fate.

If that is the case, the entire gathering was not constitutionally valid, as Cosatu’s constitution (which we’re all clearly going to learn very much about over the next few weeks) says that a decision of the CEC must be taken by all the people present. And yes, dear reader, it does, in excruciating detail, outline who can be present.

But that’s the legal side. Over on the political side, things are much more interesting.

As always in our politics, when there is a legal case involving political types, they don’t fight just on one front. They fight on the political front as well. And in this case, the fight is for sheer numbers. Numbers of people within Cosatu who would vote for Vavi, who would say he must stay.

In the ANC, it involves conferences in far-away places like Polokwane. In Cosatu, the playing field is a little different. It involves a clause in its constitution which says that the federation must have a Special Conference, if “not less than 1/3 of the affiliates in good standing submit a written request to the General Secretary for the attention of the President calling for the meeting”. Once that letter has been received, if the president still fails to call that meeting, then the CEC is empowered to appoint someone to make it happen. In union speak, a “convener”.

Cosatu at the moment has 21 affiliates. For those who got maths marks like mine at school, that means Vavi needs seven to make that conference happen. And while it seemed like hard work at the outset, he’s actually pretty damn close.

The first union to go with him, of course, was NUMSA, which called for a special congress several months ago. Then came the Food and Allied Workers Union, then the South Africa Football Players Union (with all of its 557 members). The SA Municipal Workers Union was next (it’s a biggie, and can organise as well). Then the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (DENOSA) held a meeting at which we know they discussed this issue. We think they are joining the call, but they won’t say in public just yet. However, it would be odd for them to hold a meeting, and not decide to back Vavi; otherwise why would they have called the meeting?

And then, on Friday, news broke through EWN that the Communication Workers Union had come on board. Now this is where the politics gets dirty. We’re in high-agenda territory here, so the version you get depends on who you talk to. This is the version from the side of Vavi’s supporters: The CWU’s National Executive Committee met, and decided to also write and ask for this Special Congress. However, some of the union’s leaders back Dlamini in this whole mess. So they sat on the decision, and didn’t make it public. Vavi’s allies in the union got frustrated, and so its Gauteng Provincial secretary, Aubrey Tshabalala, held a press conference about the province’s position on Vavi, and then let the news slip. You know, entirely by accident. Amazing what can happen when the microphones are on.

However, the union’s acting general secretary [a lot of those about at the moment – Ed], Thabo Mogolane did confirm the decision. So it’s definitely true that the CWU, as a union, wants the Special Congress.

But wait, dear reader, there’s more to this. Because Cosatu’s Constitution says those unions must be in “good standing”. In other words, fully paid up, well-behaved little unions. And Vavi’s opponents within Cosatu immediately suggested that perhaps the CWU should be asked if it is in “good standing” at the moment.

Back to the CWU we go, then. And the answer, again through Tshabalala, is that yes they are. At the moment. But they weren’t at the time of the CEC that suspended Vavi. So according to them, their vote does indeed count. And so Vavi needs just one more union and it’s game on for that Special Congress.

But wait, says Dlamini and Co. Actually, the CEC decides whether or not a union is in good standing or not. And so, at its next CEC meeting, Cosatu will decide whether or not the CWU is in good standing, and thus whether its voice will count.

Now, dear reader, you may not be as cynical as we are, but can you imagine a situation more ripe for manipulation? Firstly, there’s the timing. With Vavi out of the official picture at Cosatu House, Dlamini is really running the show. So there’ll probably only be another CEC meeting when he’s good and ready. And that gives him a chance to fight back, to put pressure on other unions not to join this call.

And fight back he must. Because should that Special Congress happen, should Vavi get to put his case to ordinary workers, he’s in a much stronger position. And Dlamini will be that much weaker. No one likes a back-room deal that sees their vote being ignored. And that’s how it could feel to many many Cosatu members. And if Vavi wins, then Dlamini is completely out. Probably for good.

So the stakes are high.

And as we know, when the stakes are high, people tend to behave very badly indeed. 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 with the trade union federation’s president Sidumo Dlamini (R) at a news conference in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 29 May 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA


While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.

Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.

Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.

Stimulus Package

Ramaphosa steps up to economic realities with R50bn package

By Greg Nicolson

"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon