Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini and the federation’s general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi used to be good friends and comrades. They found common cause in defending President Jacob Zuma in his criminal trials and supporting his bid to topple Thabo Mbeki as ANC president. They also worked together to get Willie Madisha expelled as Cosatu president and for Dlamini to take his position. It is probably the memory of this relationship which caused Vavi’s wife Noluthando to remark outside the South Gauteng High Court on Friday: “I became very emotional because I was asking myself why, why would your own comrades that you have been fighting with in the trenches act so badly against you?”
Had they not been engaged in an unprecedented and bitter battle for control of Cosatu, Dlamini would probably have been lending support to Vavi over the past few days as he sat at his daughter Phumeza’s hospital bed, willing her to live and dealing with the shock of her near paralysis. She survived a horrific accident in the Eastern Cape last Wednesday when the minibus taxi she was travelling in crashed into a van, leaving seven people dead.
On Sunday, Vavi left Phumeza at East London’s Frere Hospital and travelled to Johannesburg so that he can return to Cosatu House on Monday morning and resume his position as general secretary. While Phumeza will undergo surgery on Monday to reset the bones in her neck, which shifted dangerously close to her spinal cord in the impact of the accident, Vavi will be attending a meeting of Cosatu’s office bearers for the first time since he was suspended last August for having sex with a junior employee.
After fighting for months to be return to Cosatu House, it is an ironic twist of fate that he actually does not want to be there on Monday. But Vavi could not take the chance of staying with his daughter with daggers drawn to reinstate his suspension and oust him from Cosatu entirely.
Cosatu’s leaders called a special central executive committee (CEC) meeting for Tuesday, which will discuss the South Gauteng High Court’s decision that Vavi’s suspension was invalid. Deputy Judge President Phineas Mojapelo ruled in favour of an application by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) that Cosatu did not abide by its constitution when a special CEC decided to suspend Vavi without voting on the matter. The judgment invalidates all decisions taken at the meeting, including that an investigation be undertaken into Vavi’s conduct. (As a result of that investigation, Vavi had to face a disciplinary hearing on nine charges.)
Vavi’s detractors in Cosatu want to push ahead with the disciplinary hearing, regardless of the judgment, as they believe his misconduct still needs to be dealt with. In informal discussions over the weekend, there was even talk of moves to expel Vavi as his opponents believe his public statements against the Cosatu leadership justifed this. But the court judgment has made all players weary of adhering to process in their next moves.
Last week, in anticipation of Friday’s court ruling on Vavi’s suspension, his lawyers received a request from Cosatu’s leaders that he should not return to the office while they were still considering his case. Vavi was not willing to adhere to this but consented to a subsequent request that he not interfere with any of the witnesses who were to testify against him. Cosatu has apparently indicated that they would not appeal Mojapelo’s ruling.
The atmosphere in Cosatu House will be charged on Monday, particularly as the office bearers have to discuss the agenda for Tuesday’s CEC meeting. The Cosatu constitution states that special CEC meetings “may only discuss those issues which necessitated the calling of this meeting”. Vavi’s opponents want to table a motion to suspend him and then vote on the matter. But as this is not on the agenda, there is bound to be a debate on whether this can be done in the context of the item on his disciplinary hearing.
The situation within Cosatu is now so fraught that some affiliate leaders are anticipating that the CEC meeting could descend into physical fights. On Sunday a Numsa shop stewards’ council meeting in Durban erupted in chaos when members of teachers union Sadtu, meeting at the same hotel, attempted to storm the metalworkers’ event. Police had to be called in to separate the two groups of sister unions.
Apart from Vavi’s matter, Tuesday’s special CEC will also discuss the request by nine affiliates for a special national congress and the move to suspend or expel Numsa from Cosatu. In February, the CEC decided not to hold a special congress on the basis of financial constraints, election work and a full programme of other events. But Numsa and its allies in federation are determined to force the special congress, including by going to court, as the Cosatu constitution does not envisage a situation where the president of the federation can opt not to convene a special congress.
The February CEC also decided that the office bearers should write to Numsa asking the union to give reasons why it should not be suspended or expelled from the federation. This followed resolutions taken at Numsa’s special congress in December, which Cosatu said was “diametrically opposed” to its own policies, and went against its constitution, principles and traditions.
Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim has since submitted a 59-page document to Cosatu, with a spirited defence of the union’s decisions and postures, including its call to Cosatu to break from the alliance and not to support the ANC in next month’s elections. In the document, Jim points out that the CEC has no constitutional powers to decide whether or not to hold a special national congress and that Dlamini “has acted in contravention of his duties” by going on record as saying he “notes” the February CEC decision knowing that it was “unlawful”.
“Numsa considers this instance of illegality on the part of Cosatu as part of a wider attempt to silence it and to prevent it from challenging the decision not to call a Special National Congress. Indeed, if Numsa is suspended or expelled, Numsa will be precluded from further challenging that decision,” the document states. This, Jim says, is the motivation behind the move to expel Numsa.
The Numsa document says democratic processes within Cosatu have become “distorted and unrecognisable.”
“It is, with immense respect, simply ludicrous for the federation to suggest that where it has taken a particular posture on a matter, that debate and progression of such position and development of policies either for or against such a posture are automatically silenced by operation of the provisions of clause 2.3.” (The clause relates to the autonomy of affiliates but states that they must abide by the constitution and policies of Cosatu.)
Jim goes on to say: “The federation’s now-entrenched conduct of contravening its own constitution (forming a binding contract between itself and its affiliates) when debate on federation policy is suggested, is alarming to say the least, and Stalinist at worst.”
With regard to the decisions taken at Numsa’s special congress, Jim says the Cosatu national office bearers read the resolutions “with jaundiced eyes”. Explaining the decision not to support the ANC, Jim says, “As facts have shown, the present policies of the alliance and certain of its partners have become overtly worker-antagonistic.” He also points out that Numsa is “not the first union historically to call for a review of the tripartite alliance or indeed to withhold support for the ANC”. Municipal workers union Samwu did so in the past and this did not yield “any form of rebuke or chastisement” from Cosatu, Jim said.
With Cosatu having had a few weeks to stew over the Numsa document, the knives will be out for the metalworkers union at Tuesday’s special CEC. But Jim warns in the document that according to the Cosatu constitution, in order to suspend or expel a union, the federation must notify the affiliate in writing of the reasons and granted the affiliate permission to present its case to the CEC.
It might take a miracle for Cosatu to get through the meeting without tensions boiling over. Former friends and comrades will be in the same room for hours, having to confront the issues which turned them into sworn enemies.
Eventually, after the dust of the current battle is settled, and way after the 2014 elections have passed, the troubled union federation will either have to limp its way to the special congress or face tossing its own constitution into the fire in the desperation to get rid of one of President Zuma’s toughest opponents. None of these options will be good for the unions, for the workers they represent or for the country.
Should the special congress eventually happen, the numbers will favour Team Vavi, and eventually cause separation from the alliance. More pliable members will opt to stay with the ANC and SACP, but the majority would chart a new era of competition for the new control of workers’ hearts, minds and votes.
Should Dlamini’s side prevail, a similar process of separation would happen, with Numsa leading an exodus away from Cosatu.
Whatever happens, the once proud workers’ organisation, which paralysed the entire Apartheid state, is eating itself. And when all is said and done, Cosatu is the ultimate pawn in the battle for the political survival of the man from the rolling hills of Nkandla – whom it helped make president. DM
Photo: Zwelinzima Vavi reurns to The Cosatu House, 7 April 2014. Photo Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick
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