South Africa

Cosatu break-up, Act IX, Scene VIII: Vavi takes a leap without a safety net

By Ranjeni Munusamy 4 March 2015

We all know how it will end; it is just the plot of the penultimate scene that keeps changing. If Cosatu were a theatre production, the audience would have long left the auditorium and the protagonists would still be on stage engaged in a protracted build-up to the final showdown that will eventually leave the entire cast lying lifeless on stage. At this week’s Cosatu central executive committee, there will be another attempt to boot Zwelinzima Vavi out of the federation – this time with Vavi himself providing the basis for his ejection. The dominant faction in Cosatu is also trying to admit a new metalworkers union as an affiliate to replace the expelled Numsa. This is a story in desperate need of a grand finale. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

At a media briefing following a Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) meeting in November, Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini and general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi seemed to be making contradictory statements but were trying to convince the media pack that they meant the same thing. After over two years of raging battles in the federation, they were making a deliberate attempt to present a united front, to give impetus to a new political process to resolve Cosatu’s problems.

The problem was that while their posture was very amicable and comradely, their respective messaging was opposite.

Vavi was saying that the disciplinary process against him was held off as part of the new political process, which was to be mediated by the ANC. He also said that Numsa, which had been expelled from the federation two weeks previously, would have to be involved in the discussions as part of the political process, and there was therefore hope of its affiliation being restored and the divisions in Cosatu being healed.

Dlamini’s explanation was somewhat different. He said the disciplinary charges against Vavi still stood. He also made no commitment about the intention of the political process being to reinstate Numsa’s membership. Dlamini’s interest seemed to be to get the seven rebel unions that were refusing to attend Cosatu meetings because of Numsa’s expulsion, back into the fold.

At the time it was all made to sound like semantics, and there was an appeal to journalists to stop trying to undermine the process of resolving Cosatu’s problems. Now, three-and-a-half months later, the whole process has gone to pot again, and Dlamini and Vavi have resumed their positions at the head of opposing factions.

The political process has been a non-starter, perhaps because of the fundamental difference in understanding between the two factions as to what the process should achieve. Dlamini’s faction does not want Numsa back in Cosatu, but they do want the seven rebel unions back. Vavi’s faction wants Numsa’s expulsion to be set aside and for a special national congress to be convened that would clear Vavi of the disciplinary charges. They also want the special congress to show Dlamini and his allies the door, and to mandate Vavi to resume exerting pressure on the ANC and government.

With these diametrically opposed objectives, some of which will not be in the ANC’s interest, it is no wonder that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and his task team mediating the Cosatu conflict, have not been able to make much progress.

This week, the uneasy truce in the Cosatu leadership collapsed publically following Vavi’s announcement that he would not be attending the CEC meeting, which was again being boycotted by the seven unions opposing Numsa’s expulsion. Vavi is also believed to be opposed to Numsa’s rival, the Liberated Metalworkers Union of SA (Limusa), being accepted as a new affiliate of Cosatu. Limusa, led by former Numsa president Cedric Gina, claims to be registering members in the metal sector who are opposed to Numsa’s militancy and decision to withdraw support for the ANC.

According to the Cosatu constitution, a union can be admitted as an affiliate once it submits to the CEC documents showing its membership and audited financial statements. It must also show that it has democratically elected worker representatives at all levels. Limusa has not yet held any elective meetings but despite it not being able to meet the basic criteria, there is a push to have it in the Cosatu fold, a move that would finally close the door on Numsa.

Without Numsa, the Vavi faction is without its strongest, most militant voice within Cosatu, and it is outnumbered when issues are put to the vote. But it is not only one faction that is struggling because of Numsa’s expulsion. The metalworkers’ union, with 340,000 members, was the financially strongest affiliate and biggest contributor to the federation in terms of affiliation fees and political levies. The decision to boot out Numsa has cost Cosatu over R11 million in annual income.

According to a report by Cosatu’s financial committee, presented at this week’s CEC, if the other affiliates did not cough up more for affiliation fees, there could be no salary increases and there would have to be some personnel cuts. The reduced income could also make it unaffordable to have provincial congresses and the federation would have to go around with a begging bowl to pay the costs for its national elective congress.

It would seem that Dlamini and the unions aligned to him would rather have Cosatu scaling back its activities to the point of dysfunctionality than have Numsa rescue the finances. Numsa remains in the cold with no hope of return until a congress or special congress is convened where they can appeal their expulsion.

Vavi’s decision not to attend this week’s CEC appears to be motivated by a number of factors. He tweeted that he did not believe that going ahead with the meeting with “half of the unions refusing to participate” was the best way to unify the federation. But now it is not clear whether the seven unions would continue their boycott over Numsa. On Tuesday, the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) said it was not one of the unions boycotting the CEC. Dlamini said in media interviews that representatives of nursing union Denosa were also at the meeting.

While the rebel unions were committed to their appeal for a special Cosatu congress, it is yet unclear whether they would rally to leave the federation altogether and join forces with Numsa in a new federation. There is also no commitment from them to make any kind of political jump away from the ANC – as was evident by their non-attendance at the United Front assembly, hosted by Numsa in December.

Vavi now finds himself in a real dilemma. The remaining unions in Cosatu want him out of the federation and are determined to still charge him for disciplinary infringements. The forensic investigation by auditing firm SizweNtsalubaGobodo was extended to probe whether he violated Cosatu’s tender policy in the awarding of contracts. The investigation up to now has been probing impropriety in the sale of the former Cosatu headquarters and purchase of the new building. Vavi has denied all these allegations.

But the longer he lingers, the more the onslaught will intensify. Had he attended this week’s meeting, he would have faced a firing squad with no friendly forces to defend him. By not attending, he is now perceived to have “absconded” from the meeting and can have additional charges piled against him. Vavi instead attended the Aurora Empowerment Systems court case in Pretoria and was gung-ho about rumours that he could face suspension again.

“Frankly, I don’t care what happens… I’ve been suspended before and if that’s the decision, that’s the decision,” he told reporters.

And so the Cosatu merry-go-round keeps going. If Vavi is suspended – and it would appear that he realises that his position is untenable and therefore wants to be suspended – it means he will be out in the cold again, this time alongside Numsa. In order to get back in, he needs Cosatu to convene a congress.

Both Vavi and Numsa seem certain that a Cosatu congress would swing in their favour. But who knows what the general membership of the federation thinks now? The two million workers affected by the leadership battles have been watching the skirmishes rage since 2012, with no end in sight. The longer these battles continue, the more irrelevant Cosatu becomes, both in terms of representing worker interests and the political life of the country.

Someone needs to call the final act and pull the curtains down. It has become the most drawn-out saga in contemporary politics, and it is time everyone moved on. Not just Zwelinzima Vavi. 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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