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Battleground Cosatu, now in court

Cosatu’s constitution “was thrown out the window” and the congress was in breach of contract when it suspended former Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi, the High Court heard on Thursday. In the court case that almost no one is watching, Vavi’s team made a play for his re-instatement. But what if he gets his wish? By DAILY MAVERICK STAFF REPORTER.

On Thursday, at the High Court in Johannesburg, a small gathering assembled in support of Zwelinzima Vavi, suspended Cosatu Secretary General, who was suspended from his duties by Cosatu’s central executive committee (CEC) last August. Vavi was in court in order to challenge that suspension, and a press release had promised a massive crowd in which “people will see biggest ever demonstration of workers to express our full support of Zwelinzima Vavi.” Nothing close to that transpired, and Castro Ngobese, National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa) spokesperson, pointed out the obvious: the supporters didn’t arrive. While Julius Malema could bring out legions to his various court appearances, and Jacob Zuma’s rape and corruption cases turned into massive street parties, Vavi could muster nowhere near that level of excitement.

His supporters danced near an open truck blaring music, and Metro cops asked them to turn it down.

The future looks similarly muted for the charismatic former general secretary. Based on the Cosatu affiliates in support of the court action, the Federation’s divisions were on full display. Numsa, who initially lodged the complaint (Vavi was later added as an applicant) have made their break from the ANC, and has been plainly in support of Vavi’s reinstatement. On other side, Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini, Vavi’s chief rival, managed to keep principal allies, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU), the South African Democratic Teacher’ Union (SADTU) and the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU), lined up against the ousted General Secretary.


Photo: Numsa General Secretary Irvin Jim walks into court to support Vavi. (Greg Nicolson)

Last July, in a messy unfolding, Vavi was accused of rape by a junior employee, charges that were later withdrawn. But Vavi did admit to a consensual affair, and he was put on special leave pending a disciplinary hearing. The CEC convened in August of last year, and after what Team Vavi described as a meeting in which no vote was taken, as per constitutional requirement, 16 members in good standing supported the suspension, while eight either didn’t or were non-committal.

Vavi and his supporters are arguing that Cosatu’s constitution recognises that in order to formalise a suspension, a vote should have been taken, and it should have been recorded as such, and that it was within his rights to speak in support of his own case before the CEC. None of that, claims Vavi, happened. Ergo, the suspension must be overturned.

Said PJ de Bruyn, Vavi’s SC, “Mr Vavi has a right to a fair voting process irrespective of which way it goes. Because of the fact that there was no vote we don’t know what the outcome of the vote would have been. It’s pure speculation.”

Courtroom E11 was filled with most of the key players in this saga, and they were holed up in their respective camps. There was S’dumo Dlamini and acting general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali, who are Zuma supporters and want Cosatu to stay its current course, such as it has one. And there was Vavi and his Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim, who have famously fallen out with the Zuma camp.


Photo: Numsa Deputy Secretary General Karl Cloete gives the thumbs up as he walks out of the court in support of Vavi.

But what if Vavi does have his suspension overturned? He still has the Cosatu leadership stacked against him, and there are outstanding allegations that he helped his stepdaughter land a job within Cosatu, along with insinuations over missing monies when the union moved offices, to say nothing of that sexual relationship.

This case is certainly about Numsa pushing Cosatu, but it’s also about Vavi clearing his name. He still hopes to promulgate the idea that he’s a decent, upright union representative, sex scandal notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Numsa certainly want to call a Special National Congress, which would require all unions to send representatives, and to vote on leadership matters. In their best-case scenario, that would mean Dlamini to Siberia, and the installation of a Cosatu leadership that tacks further to the left. The current Cosatu leadership, for their part, will hope to put that off, to split Numsa, expel them, and keep the rump of their members.

There is still a court case to battle through, with the case continuing on Friday. One thing appears to be clear: This is a game that will result in the shattering of a storied Federation of unions—one that helped bring down the Apartheid regime, and offered dignity to so many. DM

Main photo: “We miss the critical ZV voice” reads a placard from supporters outside the court. Few people were in attendance outside to support Vavi. (Greg Nicolson)

Additional reporting by Sapa.


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