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Cosatu’s Divide and Conquer: Vavi gets reprieve, Numsa gets dumped

After months of open warfare, Cosatu’s leaders have decided to smoke the peace pipe and begin a new, new negotiations process, led by the ANC, to resolve their numerous problems. Suddenly the special congress Cosatu affiliates have been demanding for over a year is on the table, Zwelinzima Vavi’s disciplinary charges are held in abeyance and there is a possibility that Numsa’s expulsion could be reversed. A week ago, these were non negotiable. What changed? Cosatu has been hit by the consequences of expelling Numsa, which, apparently, they did not anticipate. And the ANC has realised how much they stand to lose with Vavi and Numsa setting up a new force outside the Alliance. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Zwelinzima Vavi did not attend a Cosatu media briefing last week, that was held to announce metalworkers’ union Numsa’s expulsion from the federation, because he was apparently “signing court papers” with his lawyers. Later that day, it emerged that Vavi had deliberately boycotted the briefing because he did not support the decision to expel Numsa. He said so in a heartfelt letter to the entire Cosatu leadership. He felt so strongly about the matter that he could not bring himself to sign a letter to Numsa confirming their expulsion.

That was last week.

This week, Vavi was not only addressing another media briefing alongside his arch nemesis, Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini, he was also confirming that Numsa is expelled and remains so under a new peace deal agreed to by the unions that also wanted him booted out of the federation. The Cosatu briefing on Thursday was called to “set the record straight” after some media reported that a special central executive committee (CEC) meeting on Wednesday had decided that disciplinary charges against Vavi should be reinstated.

Instead, it appears Vavi has received a further reprieve on the nine charges he faces. These include bringing Cosatu into disrepute because of his sexual encounter with a staff member and allegations of financial impropriety. Following Numsa’s expulsion after a marathon CEC meeting on 7 November, it seemed almost certain that Vavi would be next in line to be shown the door. That meeting proved that the faction opposed to Vavi and Numsa has the majority vote in the CEC and can steamroll any decision. There were rumours doing the rounds that Vavi would quit before it came to him being dragged through a disciplinary process and ultimately expelled.

Last week, seven unions aligned to Numsa came out in protest of Numsa’s expulsion, but also warned about continued attempts to marginalise Vavi. In order not to be associated with such decision, the seven unions suspended their participation in Cosatu structures.

When the CEC met for a special meeting on Wednesday, Vavi’s disciplinary issue was on the agenda, and because he had no allies in that meeting with Numsa and the seven unions not present, it seemed as if his fate was sealed.

But on Thursday, Vavi gleefully told the media that he would not be going to his disciplinary hearing scheduled for next week until the “political process” has unfolded. The political process is an ANC-led initiative to try and mediate the problems in Cosatu. An ANC task team, led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, has been involved in an intervention since April. In October, the ANC task team presented a report to Cosatu that could not provide a workable formula to settle the disputes. As a result the decision to expel Numsa went ahead.

It would appear that neither Cosatu nor the ANC anticipated the public reaction to Numsa’s expulsion. The Cosatu leadership was condemned for taking a decision that would lead to the effective split of a 29-year-old organisation – and purely on factional grounds. Numsa won the PR war in explaining the desperation of Cosatu leaders to axe them in order to please their political masters in the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

It also appears that there is now panic that Numsa, the seven unions and Vavi leaving would not only split Cosatu, but would have major implications for the ANC at the polls. If hounded out of the alliance, Vavi could go from being a critical voice against the ANC government to the leader of a new, leftist movement. This seems to have prompted a rethink and a new political process to resolve the problems.

In order to make this work, the Cosatu leaders had to make some concessions. They had to back off on Vavi and get him onside to sell the deal and draw the seven unions back in. They also had to undertake to hold a special congress, which Numsa, together with the seven unions, have demanded through renewed court action.

Vavi seems to have fallen for the deal hook, line and sinker. The fact that his disciplinary process is on hold must be a great relief for him. But he obviously does not mind the irony of having previously screamed that the charges against him were politically motivated, and now have them dealt with through political negotiations.

Vavi seems also to have been convinced that there is now a commitment to holding a special Cosatu congress early next year, after Dlamini and others have been dead against it. This special congress will take place a few months before a scheduled Cosatu congress in September next year. It seems inconceivable that the federation would have two major events, at great cost and logistical planning, and to discuss the same issues, in the same year. But Vavi has accepted the word of Dlamini and others that this will happen.

On this basis, and in the name of worker unity, there will now be an attempt to coax the seven unions back into Cosatu to participate in the ANC facilitated political process.

What happens then to Numsa, the union that went to court to defend Vavi and stood by him through all his troubles? Surely any deal should have included a reversal of their expulsion as a basic condition? But Vavi said at the media briefing that the decision to expel Numsa was not reversed and still stands. As part of the “inclusive” political process, Numsa would be “engaged”.

Numsa, it would seem, has been hung out to dry, even though the Cosatu leaders now say that it is not out of the question that their expulsion be reversed.

Daily Maverick understands that Numsa’s leaders were extremely angered and confronted Vavi for selling them out and striking a deal with their enemies. While Vavi believes that he extracted concessions on their behalf, such as the undertaking that a special congress be held, there is no commitment to a date or an agenda. Numsa would also not be able to participate in the special congress but can only appeal for their expulsion to be reversed.

From the consultations Numsa has been having with it structures, it would appear that the majority of their members prefer that they give up the fight to remain in Cosatu and chart their own course to form a new federation and new political movement. The new Cosatu political process however locks down Vavi and the seven allied unions, leaving Numsa twisting in the wind on its own.

That is exactly what their enemies in the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu wanted – and ironically Vavi consented to the deal that made that happen. However, the unity message put out by him and Dlamini on Thursday conceals the real effect of the deal.

It will be difficult to keep the unity message going when there is still so much bad blood in the federation. The status of Cosatu second deputy president Zingiswa Losi remains a divisive issue, after she switched membership from Numsa to police union Popcru. Numsa and its seven allies believe her position is now illegitimate, but in their absence, the CEC on Wednesday confirmed her status. It will therefore not be a simple matter for Cosatu to draw the seven unions back, even with Vavi’s help.

There is also the question of whether Cosatu will be allowed to resolve its problems without interference. Before Cosatu called its media briefing, the SACP had one scheduled to address “the challenges” in Cosatu. At the weekend, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande was reported as saying Numsa was a “stinking corpse” that needed to be kicked out of Cosatu. It would seem that the SACP briefing had been called to gloat further about Numsa’s expulsion.

But after Cosatu’s media briefing, preaching unity and committing to a new political process, the SACP changed its tune to also urge worker unity. The SACP denied that it played a role in Numsa’s expulsion and blamed the media and analysts for an “anti-SACP, anti-ANC” agenda. The SACP also offered a rather clumsy explanation for Nzimande’s “stinking corpse” comment about Numsa, claiming that idioms were lost in translation and that Nzimande had been merely putting matters “in context”. SACP second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila said Nzimande’s comment was not an insult, as he had been talking about issues of discipline.

Asked what the SACP’s reaction would be if the “stinking corpse” of Numsa was allowed back into Cosatu in terms of the new political process, Mapaila said Cosatu was an independent organisation and the SACP would respect its decisions. And yet the SACP thought it appropriate to call a media briefing on Cosatu’s affairs.

The ANC task team is to meet former Cosatu leaders on Saturday and the federation’s national office bearers on Monday to develop a roadmap for the peace negotiations.

Ramaphosa, who leads the process as head of the ANC task team, seems to be South Africa’s premier peace broker. While his mediation in Sudan and Lesotho seems to have borne fruit, the deal he negotiated between the ANC and opposition parties in Parliament fell to pieces in a day.

Cosatu is a complicated case, with double agendas, self-interest and hidden hands at play. But ultimately, the ANC wants Cosatu to keep its position as a vote delivering machine, but with compliant leaders. So the farce continues, this time with Vavi as an active participant. DM

Photo: General secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is seen at a Cosatu briefing in Johannesburg, Monday, 15 September 2014. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA


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