South Africa

Vavi and Cosatu: Will he go out in a whimper or a blaze of glory?

By Stephen Grootes 29 March 2015

On Sunday, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi essentially dared the dominant faction within the federation, and more particularly, its Central Executive Committee, to fire him. His explanation is that he can no longer make any progress using traditional - i.e. boardroom - means. It is an admission that he simply doesn’t have the numbers within the CEC to push any decisions through, that the CEC wants him out, and that he will, in the end, have no choice but to leave. It is clear Vavi wants to go out in a blaze of glory and be able to claim that he tried every possible option before exiting Cosatu. But, because of his weakness in terms of numbers, his opponents have a few options. And plenty of cards. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Timing can be everything in politics. With timing, comes momentum, and with momentum, if you get something going, it’s possible to create real change. Think of the momentum opposition parties have been able to create around Nkandla, or of how President Jacob Zuma and Gwede Mantashe were able to swing momentum against Julius Malema within the ANC, when he appeared to be unstoppable.

At one point, Vavi and the faction that he is aligned with – that around the National Union of Metalworkers of SA and the other unions still within Cosatu that back them – seemed to be making all the running. There were congress decisions to withdraw support from the ANC followed by declarations of support for this and that, and opposition to that thing and another. And then, crucially, the announcement that NUMSA would help to create a new political movement, something that would stand on the Left, and oppose the ANC.

These were heady days and it seemed that this movement would contest next year’s local government polls, sweep a few Eastern Cape towns and march into the 2019 national elections.

What has stopped that momentum is the fight for the soul of Cosatu. Vavi and co. have spent all of their energy on that, rather than on the political side. That’s completely understandable. They are elected to represent workers and so they should spend most of their energy there.

But what this has done is to give the ANC a massive gift. It’s stopped the momentum behind the political movement and halted what looked like the unstoppable tsunami of another political party that would have more credibility than the Economic Freedom Fighters.

What could change all of this is the expulsion of Vavi from Cosatu. With him, presumably, would go the other NUMSA-supporting unions and the split from Cosatu would finally be upon us.

However, the dominant group within Cosatu – its President S’dumo Dlamini and the leaders of some of the bigger affiliates, like the National Union of Mineworkers’ Frans Baleni – now has a massive card to play. Vavi has dared them to fire him; he’s told the world it’s an act of “deliberate defiance” to not attend Monday’s meeting.

But what if they simply do not react at all? Hold their meeting and issue a bland statement afterwards that they “regret the non-attendance of the general secretary”? And when asked about it, make some mutter about “grand-standing” or “he thinks he’s bigger than anyone else”. It could be quite a smart move and it would put Vavi back on the back-foot. It would also be a reminder to everyone that while Vavi keeps talking about how he has a mandate from workers, they can claim exactly the same thing. It was all part of the same deal at Cosatu’s congress back in 2012, where there was no election because everyone was returned unopposed. So their mandate is exactly the equal of his.

Of course, probably the more likely course of action is to grab Vavi’s dare, and go for it. Show that they can act and fire his rear-end. They would be able to point to his public statements and claim that he has given up on the principle of “democratic centralism”, that he will no longer abide to the discipline that they have always obeyed over the years and that he will not accept the will of the majority.

In that case, you could expect muttering about “poor loser” and “he hates the ANC”. However, the risk is that Vavi will be able to portray himself as a victim. He’s essentially tried to get a narrative out there already that he is the person standing up for workers, and that’s why he’s being persecuted, and thus, if he is expelled, it’s only because he was doing the right thing.

One of the problems this group faces is that it is usually wrong to appear weak in politics. Vavi has dared them; they could look weak if they take no action; they could, bluntly, look too scared to act. It would be a concession that his claim to have the backing of the majority of Cosatu members is correct. A rather dangerous concession to make.

That, then, means they could go for a calibrated response. Instead of the decision to sack him by lunchtime, they could prolong this process even further, opting for some sort of disciplinary action. Some long investigation, that takes six months just to confirm what he everyone saw him saying on TV. This, then, would have the advantage that they would both be seen to be taking action and would not appear overly harsh. It could avoid setting Vavi up as a victim. Especially if someone of unimpeachable integrity from the labour world were asked to adjudicate the whole thing. Someone like, say, Charles Nupen.

This would then force Vavi to have to take some sort of action of his own, something perhaps too extreme, that could make it look like they had no choice but to remove him from the CEC.

In the end, perhaps the easiest way to work out the best course of action for this group is to determine their end goals. Is it about Cosatu or about politics and the ANC? Both sides can be unpredictable here. Sometimes Vavi talks up how important it is to protect workers, sometimes it’s about the socio-political situation in the country. In the end, it cannot be denied that both sides want to influence politics, otherwise why would Cosatu be in an alliance with the ANC, and why would NUMSA have withdrawn its support for the ANC?

This could mean that the political considerations come more to the fore. Thus, perhaps, this group could decide, once more, to kick for touch. After all, the current situation suits them rather well, they’re in charge, they have what they want – it’s NUMSA and Vavi that don’t. Why upset the apple cart, why take the provocation?

That would mean that this all gets prolonged even further. And that will benefit them, and the ANC. DM

Main Pic: Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi on Sunday at Cosatu House said he would not resign as that would be a victory for his detractors and the elite. (Greg Nicolson)


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