Zwelinzima Vavi was clearly feeling buoyant at the Cosatu media briefing on Thursday. Something in the discussions over the previous days with other Cosatu officials and the unions that were hostile to him gave him the impression that it was possible to glue the federation back together again.
Vavi announced that agreement had been reached at a Cosatu central executive committee meeting on Wednesday that a special national congress would be held early next year. Nine unions, including Numsa, made repeated calls for a special congress to resolve the federation’s problems, and even took Cosatu to court to demand that their request be complied with, as stipulated in the Cosatu constitution. Vavi was also clearly upbeat about not having to appear before a disciplinary hearing and defend himself on charges of misconduct and bringing Cosatu into disrepute.
In trying to explain a new ANC-led initiative to broker a peace deal in Cosatu, Vavi explained that it would be “inclusive” political process, meaning that all the players would have to be involved. But asked whether Numsa’s expulsion would be reversed so that it could participate in this process, Vavi replied: “We don’t know.”
As Vavi was speaking on behalf of the national office bearers of Cosatu, who are in charge of running the federation, you would expect that if there were a commitment to fix the problems in the federation, they would know what the status of Numsa would be. And is they do not know, who does? The ANC? Is this not handing over the affairs of the federation completely to their alliance partner then?
But Vavi seems to think agreement will be forthcoming that Numsa will participate in the political process. “You cannot shave a man in his absence,” he said, using the metaphor to suggest that Numsa would be involved. Because Numsa is currently not part of Cosatu, they would be “engaged”. Interestingly, Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini allowed Vavi to waddle through this clumsy explanation without himself committing to whether he thought Numsa’s expulsion should be revoked in order to get the peace deal on track.
Dlamini did however go to great lengths to emphasise the desire for “unity” in Cosatu, even urging the media to assist in this process.
What appears to be the case is that Dlamini, the unions in his faction and the political brains behind them did not anticipate that the seven unions allied to Numsa would suspend their participation in the Cosatu following the expulsion of the metalworkers’ union. This undermined their efforts to marginalise the leadership of Numsa from their own constituency and the rest of the federation. What has happened as a result is the serious of the move by the seven unions is the prospect of over 40% of Cosatu’s membership breaking away from the federation. And if these members leave the federation, there is no accounting for what happens to their political support at the polls.
It is this, rather than the desire for unity, that propelled the need for a new political process mediated by the ANC. The special congress is also being dangled as a possibility now as an act of good faith towards the seven unions. It is highly unlikely that the seven unions would return to full participation in Cosatu without some concessions from the opposing faction.
Vavi, rather than being granted a reprieve from his disciplinary woes for the sake of unity, has been roped in to help draw the seven unions into the political process. But since the media conference on Thursday, there have been indications from Vavi’s detractors in the Cosatu unions that worked to get Numsa expelled that he is definitely not off the hook. Lifting the disciplinary charges would effectively mean untying the leash they now have on Vavi and would allow him to return to attack mode against the government.
The current arrangement, which dangles the prospect of the disciplinary charges being scrapped and Numsa and its allies returning to Cosatu, is enough to keep Vavi compliant. Whereas a few weeks ago he was bemoaning the “paralysis” and loss of relevance in Cosatu, he softened his stance last week, telling journalists it was “not true” that the federation was not dealing with worker issues.
While Vavi is jumping through hoops to get the peace process on track, there is now the additional problem of the conditions being set by Numsa and its allies.
Daily Maverick understands that the seven unions aligned to Numsa will demand the “unconditional” reinstatement of the metalworkers’ union as a full affiliate of Cosatu. At a meeting between the seven unions’ national executive committees on Saturday, indications were that they were not prepared to participate in the ANC-led political process without Numsa.
Numsa on the other hand is also raising the stakes. They are not prepared to wait for the special congress or national congress of Cosatu – whichever comes first next year – to appeal their expulsion. Indications are that the Numsa central committee, which met on Friday, wants to exhaust all options open to them to “reclaim” Cosatu. This means they will not go away quietly or sit back and wait to be engaged through the political process. Numsa has also been scathing of the ANC’s involvement in trying to mediate the Cosatu crisis between April and October. It is highly unlikely that they will suddenly view the ANC task team, led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, as impartial peace brokers.
Numsa is also forging ahead with plans to launch a United Front, in opposition to the ANC, in December. There is no indication from the union that it intends reversing a decision taken at its special congress last December to launch the movement. The ANC is therefore unlikely to view Numsa’s grievances against the Cosatu leadership and opposing unions sympathetically while it is launching a front against the ruling party.
The truth of the matter is no matter how sentimental Vavi might be about Cosatu, and how much Dlamini and others are panicking about the repercussions of the seven unions siding with Numsa, the genie is already out of the bottle. It cannot go back in.
Those who wanted Numsa out do not want it back in. The seven unions will not participate in the political process unless Numsa is unconditionally reinstated. There is no middle ground.
Numsa will also not agree to be thrown a few bones while on the outside. They want their expulsion from Cosatu to be revoked and want to pursue their own political path through the United Front.
And while Vavi still continues to hedge his bets, his currency and credibility will continue to be chewed at. When the time comes that his detractors realise he is no longer useful, and he finds himself on the ropes again, he might find his backers less eager to rush to his rescue.
In an interview on the Daily Maverick show on Cliff Central last week, Numsa deputy general secretary Karl Cloete was asked who he would like to see as the next president of South Africa. “Zwelinzima Vavi,” he responded, without skipping a beat. South Africa is currently bearing the consequences of having an indecisive leader at the helm, and one who only looks after his own self-interest. The country does not need another leader with such traits.
If Vavi has any ambitions for high office, he would be well advised to read the writing on the wall and take a stand. Building castles in the air helps no one, including himself. 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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