South Africa

Cosatu’s last action hero: Outnumbered, outgunned, in desperate need of a sequel

By Ranjeni Munusamy 20 September 2013

A Cosatu press conference without Zwelinzima Vavi is almost like a Die Hard movie without Bruce Willis – rather tame without the big guy with his finger on the trigger. Cosatu has now effectively hung its star action figure out to dry, leaving him to dangle in the wind, muzzled and frustrated, until it decides whether to convene the special national congress he so desperately needs to rescue him and give him back his lead role. Vavi and his allies seem to be outmanoeuvred, for now. So should he fight on like the protagonist in an increasingly bad action movie or consider a new script? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

While Cosatu was having a media briefing on Thursday morning to announce the outcome of its three-day central executive committee (CEC) meeting, Zwelinzima Vavi issued a media statement. The statement, released through his family spokesman, was in reaction to media reports suggesting that Vavi is likely to face additional charges for breaching the conditions of his suspension. It said that no charges had yet been put to him and that Vavi was unaware of any further charges that might be brought.

In order to end speculation about the condition of his suspension, Vavi released the letter from Cosatu deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali on behalf of the CEC informing him that he was being placed on special leave with effect from 15 August 2013, pending an investigation into his alleged misconduct and a possible disciplinary hearing.

Other than saying that Vavi is “released from all your duties as the general secretary of Cosatu”, the letter does not stipulate the conditions of his suspension. Vavi is therefore of the opinion his addressing two National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) events and a South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) meeting does not violate the terms of his special leave.

Vavi is clearly still very emotional about being suspended and also has serious withdrawal symptoms. It must be difficult to adapt to being a pariah while the detractors such as Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini get to decide his fate and also feature in the limelight that was once belonged to him. Since his troubles began, it has been difficult for Vavi to lie low and let the chips fall. He has been desperate to fight for his political life and defend himself on all the allegations that were being hurled in his direction. But this is only adding to his woes.

On Thursday, the Cosatu national office confirmed that the CEC had agreed to investigate further charges against Vavi. Dlamini made it clear that Vavi was “relieved from performing his duties as general secretary” and therefore could not address meetings of workers who are affiliated to Cosatu or make statements about the federation. “He has been doing that and we might lay charges,” Dlamini said.

The original charges stemming from Vavi’s sexual encounter with a Cosatu employee are still being investigated by an independent person to ascertain whether Vavi and the woman have to face a disciplinary hearing. As a result of this week’s CEC decision, the investigator will now also examine whether Vavi’s public statements at the Numsa and Sadtu should also be added to his charge sheet.

Vavi also received a thumping for calling the Cosatu staffer he had sex with “nopatazana”, which means a woman of loose morals in Xhosa. “The meeting condemned in the strongest terms possible the use of pejorative and degrading language towards women comrades, such as a derogatory term used by the general secretary about a Cosatu employee. Such comments portray women as sex objects or imply that they achieve their successes in life only through providing sexual favours to men,” Cosatu said in its statement.

Vavi is weighed down by several investigations – the financial impropriety probe is still ongoing – and a litany of allegations that it would seem that Cosatu might have considered dismissing him by now. The numbers in the CEC are against him so the option to do so does exist. But Ntshalintshali says Cosatu believes in due process and therefore wants to play things by the book. But a dismissal might still come down the line, and if he waits for this to happen, the damage to his reputation and standing might be deadly.

In addition to considering possible new charges, Cosatu is also clamping down on insulting language in the public statements of its leaders and discouraging the resort to court action to deal with internal problems. This means that Vavi’s supporters, such as his chief ally Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim, will have to tread carefully from now on to avoid also facing charges of misconduct.

But for Vavi and his allies, the most distressing thing announced by the Cosatu office bearers was that there was no certainty if and when a special national congress would be called. The Cosatu officials confirmed that nine affiliates have submitted letters requesting that a special congress be called. While this meets the constitutional requirement, Dlamini said he needed to “apply his mind” to whether and when a special congress should be called.

“As the president I must consider the practicalities first such as costs, the agenda, and the state of the affiliates,” Dlamini said. A report on progress towards convening a special congress will be presented at the next CEC meeting in November.

There is little the nine affiliates demanding the congress can do in the meantime. They would be aware that a lot of preparation goes into the convening of a congress, including the audit of membership figures to determine union delegations, the compilation of reports and agreement on the agenda. The costs involved might also be an inhibiting factor as the travel and accommodation costs have to be carried by individual unions and are not budgeted for.

If Dlamini stalls on making a decision, which he is likely to do, the only option open to those unions wanting the congress could be to resort to further court action against Cosatu. Three unions led by Numsa are already challenging Cosatu in the South Gauteng High Court on the decision to suspend Vavi.

But the danger with forcing the congress to be convened is that the majority of the unions who do not want it to happen might simply not show up. The congress needs two thirds of delegates to attend in order to quorate and if it is unable to do so, it has to stand down. Such stalling tactics could frustrate Vavi and his supporters for several months by which time attention will be diverted to the 2014 election campaign.

The Cosatu CEC has resolved to go full steam behind the ANC in the election and has “imposed” a political levy on affiliates to provide the resources for the election campaign. These have to be paid by the end of October. The Cosatu officials would not disclose how much the affiliates are expected to contribute to the levy.

Dlamini and his supporters, as well as the ANC and SACP allies, would not want the Cosatu special congress sideshow distracting the election campaign and therefore will in all probability try to postpone it until after the 2014 polls. By this time Vavi’s currency would have expired as he would be gagged from speaking on any issues of relevance, will have no platform and no role. This is exactly what his detractors wanted as Vavi’s candour and criticism of the ANC government is what got him into trouble in the first place. With all he has done, Vavi has placed himself at the mercy of his enemies and his wayward behaviour has now resulted in his powerful voice being muzzled.

As we at the Daily Maverick have been saying consistently, the only way Vavi can effectively play a useful role in society now is by reinventing himself outside Cosatu. If he could not read the signs before, the CEC has inscribed it on the walls now. He and his allies are outnumbered and outgunned, and the special congress option is not within their control.

In the meantime, Numsa is forging ahead with plans for its own special congress in December when it will examine its place in Cosatu and electoral support for the ANC. Numsa has recognised that its position in Cosatu has become untenable and that its policies are in complete contradiction to the ANC’s.

Vavi now needs to do his own introspection and consider whether it is worth fighting an impossible battle, with the odds stacked against him, to keep his position in Cosatu until his stature is completely diminished through innumerable allegations and investigations.

Cutting his losses should be an infinitely more attractive option than fading off screen as a bloodied and battered fallen hero. DM

Photo: Zwelinzima Vavi (Greg Nicolson)

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"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

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