Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is back from suspension, but his troubles are far from over. GREG NICOLSON joined the throng waiting for the leader of the biggest labour federation in the country on Monday.
Hell. Vavi sat in a booth at Spur, Braamfontein, on Monday sipping a coffee after a morning of radio interviews, only minutes and metres from his return to Cosatu House. After eight months of suspension, he was due back on the ninth floor in the office of the general secretary, a position that’s been his since 1999 when he took over from Mbhazima Shilowa.
“He’s in there in a black suit and red shirt,” one of the workers supporting Vavi told me. His car was parked outside, just like it was at the South Gauteng High Court recently when his supporters challenged whether the suspension was in accordance with Cosatu’s constitution. It wasn’t. Vavi sat inside the steak joint, smoking room on the left, children’s play room straight ahead. Tired as we approached, his shooting glance seemed to say, “Let me be for a moment. Let me drink a coffee before it starts.”
This weekend, Vavi was in Eastern Cape at the hospital bedside of his eldest daughter. She was in a taxi that crashed, leaving seven people dead. While he had to return to Joburg for one of the most important days of his career, Vavi has been in close touch with her doctors. It’s a tragic touch to a hellish year for the moral giant turned… well we don’t quite know yet.
Leaving the restaurant, Vavi stopped on Jorissen Street while typing in his phone. “I’ve never been on leave for such a long period in my life,” he told supporters outside Cosatu House after he slowly walked the short distance from the restaurant. “It has been a long eight months of wasted time.” Wasted, devastating, pointless, internecine – pick your adjective.
Vavi’s wife says she put her anger aside when she saw her husband being politically persecuted. The ordeal couldn’t have been easy, though. Intimate details of Vavi’s affair with an airline worker who he hired to work at Cosatu and later had sex with, in the office, were published for all to see. The country’s “critical voice” was made human, with admirers realising, like a son eventually does with a father, that he can in fact, be fallible. The voice against corruption, greed, inequality, poverty was, you’ll remember, accused of rape before his lover withdrew the allegations. To avoid the bigger charges – rape – Vavi had to admit to the lesser, admitting his morals could waiver.
“Forgive them, because they don’t know what they do,” he told about 30 supporters outside Cosatu House. He was talking about those pulling “political shenanigans”. His language was Biblical – he has finally found redemption, after all – but during and because of his suspension a plague has come down on his revolutionary house.
His biggest supporter, and the country’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa) is at risk of being expelled from Cosatu. It’s thinking of starting a workers’ party and has not told members to vote for the ANC in this year’s elections. It’s no exaggeration to say the union could split Cosatu if it leaves and manages to take some other unions with it. Unity, the vanguard of the struggle, is crumbling under democracy’s temptations, splitting and turning on itself like children fighting over an inheritance each one believes it deserves.
Then, there are the workers. When Vavi was still around, he declared 2013 the year of the shop steward. Research had shown a breakdown in union services, with shop stewards failing to fulfil their duties. It was after Marikana, which should have had unions thinking about what the hell went wrong. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were called the National Union of Management. But despite the problems, Cosatu has hardly had time to talk about workers’ issues. Its internal politics are ravenous.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), the very same that bled the NUM of members, has become the most vocal voice of the exploited working class. Numsa vies for the position, but is too political, warning about “labour desks” and fighting Blade Nzimande over who is the better communist. The Economic Freedom Fighters are also in the mix, but they are also products of the Alliance’s Christmas family feuds.
Politics. Vavi might believe he has been redeemed by the courts, a lion of the working class returning to roar for the factories and shafts, but his fight is political. That’s the key reason most of us care. The actors are the ANC, Sidumo Dlamini, Jacob Zuma, Irvin Jim and a cast of extras with one-liners.
“I am acutely aware of my responsibility to build the unity of the federation and to reach out to those who have declared themselves to be my haters at a public level,” Vavi told supporters on Monday before everyone packed into the Cosatu House elevators to continue the party outside the general secretary’s office. On the ninth floor, Vavi looked elated. He sang with the members of affiliated unions, some of whom had stuck with him throughout the ordeals. Before retreating into his office, he threw his arms out, raised his fists and sang with the vigour of a regular member at a march.
Photo: Vavi supporters followed him upstairs and sang with him outside his office.
But the hell isn’t over. Politics will never rest. Vavi’s first task is to organise a Central Executive Committee meeting, starting today, to discuss the court ruling on his suspension and Numsa. He’ll have to fight being suspended once again, with the right processes this time, and try to patch the festering wounds between different factions of the federation. More importantly, however, Vavi will need to look at the big picture and start working on answers to questions arising while he was on the couch. Will Cosatu survive in its current form, or is it time for a split? And is he, Vavi, still a critical voice with actual power? DM
Photo: Vavi outside the Cosatu House (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.