After metalworkers union Numsa was expelled from Cosatu, causing a split in the federation, everyone involved preached the need for unity. A meeting this week showed how far the labour movement remains from resolving its crises and how Zwelinzima Vavi remains in limbo. By GREG NICOLSON.
Zwelinzima Vavi loomed over Cosatu’s press briefing, despite his not being there. His colleagues droned on. They were on the defensive. Cosatu is in the midst of one of the most difficult periods in the federation’s history – it’s largest union has been exiled, five of 17 affiliates are boycotting the executive, money is tight. And its charismatic general secretary, Vavi, is a key actor in the saga’s final scenes, a battle which puts him in a contradictory position in this internecine fight.
After a three-day meeting of the Cosatu Central Executive Committee (CEC), the federation tried to put a positive spin on its challenges. Its first resolution was, “Achieving unity and cohesion through visible campaigns and unity in action”, meaning a return to workers’ issues because “unity will not be achieved through boardroom meetings alone”. Cosatu plans to launch campaigns on racism at work, socio-economic issues, e-tolls, labour brokers, the public wage negotiations, the right to strike and a national minimum wage. Setting dates, however, has been deferred to an upcoming special CEC meeting.
Much of Cosatu’s future depends on the special meeting. “The [CEC] meeting expressed deep concern against the general secretary of the federation who continues to conduct himself in a manner sought to define himself as either above the organisation or to act outside the discipline of collective leadership,” said the statement on Vavi’s non-attendance of three leadership meetings. He will have a chance to explain himself at the special CEC.
According to the latest report from auditors SizweNtsalubaGobodo, which is doing well from Cosatu’s problems, Vavi is implicated in issues around the procuring services from VNS, where his step-daughter worked, and the move from the old to the new Cosatu House. He hasn’t offered his version of events to the auditors and Cosatu has requested he do so and will discuss recommendations from the report at the special CEC.
Five of 17 affiliates weren’t at the meeting this week but the CEC (those present) called on everyone to return to take part in decision-making. “We love them. We want them inside because that’s where they belong,” said Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini. The unions, which suspended involvement in the CEC when metalworkers union Numsa was expelled last year, have called for the union’s reinstatement and for the convening of a special national congress to put the controversial issues to members to deliberate on. The congress is scheduled for July, said Dlamini, but it appears those boycotting the meetings want this in writing first.
Cosatu wants these unions back in the fold to avoid the potential risk of them joining a federation formed by Numsa, which has taken a hard line on government, backed up by forming the United Front to align left-leaning activists.
With Numsa gone, Vavi remains the albatross around Cosatu’s neck. In a letter addressed to “comrades” he explained why he wasn’t at the Cosatu meeting, despite his role as the organising general secretary.
“I have been hoping that this CEC taking place tomorrow will represent a new beginning for our beloved federation,” he wrote. He hoped the African National Congress (ANC) task team mediating Cosatu’s fights would provide a way forward but lost hope after the party missed a meeting with the federation and certain affiliates refused to postpone the CEC despite the fact that a number of unions would not be represented. “In my view unity can only be guaranteed if all affiliates are persuaded to discuss challenges. Even though we agreed to lead the way, I think we as the NOBs [national office bearers] did not try at all and that we ourselves have tended to over-rely on the ANC [task team],” Vavi wrote to his colleagues.
While Cosatu’s statement on Thursday referred to a tweet from Vavi announcing he was not attending the CEC, it seems his letter was sent prior to the meeting and the CEC would then have likely known about his absence in advance.
Vavi also explained why he hasn’t spoken to the auditing firm, SizweNtsalubaGobodo. He wants an apology for what appeared as a final report into his alleged mismanagement of funds and which was previously adopted by the Cosatu CEC without his input. Vavi thinks the investigations into him are meant to find proof of corruption.
“Conclusion: To me this episode is nothing but a witch-hunt to ‘surgically remove the general secretary’ and to deal with the ‘elephant in the room’,” he wrote after denying allegations of conflict of interest.
Vavi’s position is untenable. It seems likely that the general secretary will be suspended from Cosatu again as the ANC’s intervention failed to achieve steps towards unity. But all the important decisions are on hold until the special CEC. While that meeting and a special national congress could turn things around for Vavi, one of the strongest signs of where Cosatu is heading is its announcement that the Liberated Metalworkers Union of SA, established to rival and replace Numsa in Cosatu, meets the requirements to join the federation. Accepting the union would confirm Numsa’s exile for good and end any hopes of unification.
That decision, however, has been put off until the special CEC meeting. DM
Photo: Cosatu President S’dumo Dlamini at the press conference, 11 November 2015. (Greg Nicolson)