South Africa

Vavi in deeper waters as Numsa lifeboat springs a president-sized leak

By Ranjeni Munusamy 26 November 2013

The resignation on Monday of Cedric Gina, president of metalworkers’ union Numsa, has tremendous implications for the future of Cosatu and what happens next with Zwelinzima Vavi. It is not yet known whether the resignation was a sudden decision by Gina after months of build-up or whether it was a carefully planned move to throw Numsa into disarray ahead of its special congress in December. But as things stand, Vavi is struggling to keep his political career afloat, and his salvage team, Numsa, is no longer as formidable as they looked a few days ago. Cosatu, meanwhile, is waiting for Vavi to drown himself. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Cedric Gina was not at the urgent National Union of Metalworkers of SA press conference on Thursday when the union’s general secretary Irvin Jim and his deputy Karl Cloete were spitting fire at the ANC and SA Communist Party, and rebelling against Cosatu. In fact, the last time Gina was really part of the Numsa sharpshooting team was in August, ahead of the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) meeting that took the decision to suspend Zwelinzima Vavi.

At a Numsa media conference ahead of that Cosatu CEC meeting, Gina accused Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini of “taking sides” in the battle besetting the federation. “The president (Dlamini) said you go and engage with other presidents to find a solution… he is supposed to be a unifier and he says go and talk to others. Is he still doing his job to unite the federation?” Gina asked.

He said then that the Numsa special congress in December would “pose questions that it failed to do since 1985”, when Cosatu was formed. All South Africans should “defend Cosatu from all those who would like to reduce it to a useless, yellow trade union federation fit only for abuse by those in power”, Business Day quoted Gina as saying.

“Those who want Zwelinzima Vavi out of Cosatu want a Cosatu which will be a toy telephone, a labour desk, a pro-capitalist Cosatu,” he said.

But a month later, a fallout within Numsa was apparent over the Vavi issue. This was after Gina opposed the move for Vavi to address striking Numsa workers in Randburg, disregarding the terms of his suspension. Gina was quoted then as saying allowing Vavi to speak at the Numsa event meant theoretically that Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema or the Democratic Alliance’s Helen Zille could then also be allowed to address workers in their personal capacity.

The rest of the Numsa leadership was infuriated and Gina subsequently apologised “for the sake of unity”, he explained in a radio interview last night. But if Gina was upset by Vavi addressing Numsa workers in September, which caused him to break ranks with the rest of his union’s leadership, he could not have been pleased by the suspended Cosatu general secretary speaking at a Numsa regional conference in Durban on Saturday.

Gina is clearly someone who will push the envelope only so far, and does not want to breach the decisions of Cosatu or go to war with the ANC. It would seem he was willing to support Vavi up to a point, but drew the line at defying the Cosatu CEC.

The Durban meeting was held to prepare for Numsa’s special conference and the highly billed address by Vavi raised eyebrows as he had already been warned by the Cosatu leadership to stop addressing affiliate events while he is on special leave.

Vavi addressed the meeting, even though he claims he received a lawyer’s letter from Cosatu last week, warning him against speaking out in public about the federation’s affairs. But Vavi says he was speaking in his “personal capacity”, although the subject matter was very much to do with Cosatu and the alliance.

He told the Numsa members that the only way to unite the federation was to hold a special Cosatu congress and elect new leaders. There were people within the federation who did not have the workers’ best interest at heart, Vavi said.

“There are people who think that Cosatu must just be a tool that can only be used to catch votes, even if that is not advancing the interest of the workers.” He called on delegates to ensure that the federation was not a “sissy union” or “sweetheart union”, which served as a conveyor belt for those planning their parliamentary careers at workers’ expense.

Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini told Daily Maverick that in Vavi’s initial letter of suspension, he was told that he was prohibited from carrying out his duties as general secretary, and this included not speaking to affiliate unions. “We were not going to list a thousand issues about what he is not supposed to do while he is suspended,” Dlamini said.

He said that at the Numsa meeting on Saturday, Vavi “was calling for a special congress, a CEC overhaul, Cosatu policies – all in violation of his suspension”. “He can’t claim he was speaking just as a citizen,” Dlamini said.

Vavi denies that he was told not to speak on Cosatu issues and says he was only told not to act on behalf of the federation. He also said through his spokesman John Dludlu that this was an attempt to widen the conditions of his suspension and that he will continue to accept invitations to speak at public meetings.

“We confirm that another attempt was made this past week by the leadership of Cosatu to gag Mr Vavi from commenting on the multiple investigations he has been subjected to. He regards this as the latest in a series of ploys by some in the federation to silence whilst they brief against him. It is a continuation of a pattern to widen conditions of his suspension by stealth. He will reject the attempts to amend the conditions of his suspension,” Dludlu said in a written response to Daily Maverick.

“During his suspension, he will not represent Cosatu in any shape or form. However, as a South African, he will continue to accept invitations to address any gatherings. His address at the weekend was a case in point, and isn’t in breach of any conditions of his suspension.

“Whilst Mr Vavi is being asked to maintain a dignified silence in the media, a campaign is being driven to smear him and politically damage his reputation by selectively leaking allegations against him,” Dludlu said.

The consequences for Vavi are not yet clear as Cosatu apparently does not want to keep threatening him and adding more charges to the mountain of accusations he is already facing. Daily Maverick reported last week that a second team of forensic investigators has been appointed by the federation to probe new allegations against Vavi relating to the irregular use of Cosatu funds for personal expenses. He is already being investigated for financial impropriety in connection with the sale of the old Cosatu headquarters and misconduct for having sex with a junior staffer at the office.

Cosatu’s strategy appears to be that the longer they leave Vavi dangling in the wind, the more mistakes he is likely to make and the more his rescue plan crumbles. With Dlamini lingering on arrangements for a special Cosatu congress that could restore Vavi to his position, it was left to Numsa to drive the salvage mission. But Gina’s resignation has now exposed that Numsa is not the homogenous body it purported to be, even on its support for Vavi, whose suspension the union took Cosatu to court to challenge.

The biggest threat of the Numsa special congress is claims that the union will decide to pull out of the alliance and withdraw electoral support for the ANC. But now Gina is saying that has not yet been decided and all the big talk around this is premature. The test now will be how the chips fall at the Numsa congress and whether there is consensus behind Jim’s sweeping plans for the union to chart a new course away from the alliance.

It could be that Gina decided to bail out of Numsa on his own due to irreconcilable differences with the union’s leaders or that he was urged from higher up to resign because of the effect this would have on Numsa and Vavi. Although talk in that camp is that Gina’s resignation is no surprise and a long time coming, it has clearly disorientated them further.

Cosatu’s office bearers will be pleased by the disarray in Vavi’s corner, as they did not have to dirty their own hands to effect the latest blow. Even more smug will be the ANC and SACP leaders who were attacked by Numsa on Thursday.

Numsa’s leaders went to ground last night. They need a new plan to manoeuvre themselves and Vavi into a commanding position again, but it will not be easy finding one. DM

Photo: Suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is seen at the National Union of Metalworkers of SA’s (Numsa) political school in Benoni in eastern Johannesburg on Tuesday, 17 September 2013, titled the Mbuyiselo Ngwenda Brigade. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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