“This is a deliberate act of defiance on my part.” This was Zwelinzima Vavi essentially requesting that the trade union federation Cosatu fire him. At a melodramatic media briefing on Sunday afternoon, the soon-to-be sacked Cosatu general secretary made the rather bizarre, somewhat contradictory announcement that he had “reached the end of the road” but was not resigning from the federation. He then proceeded to air Cosatu’s dirty laundry, including its financial troubles, all in the presence of a throng of Numsa members – the union expelled from the very building he was speaking at. In his head, Vavi’s strategy makes perfect sense. To the rest of the world, not so much. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Lesson one in the guidebook of political survival: Never call a media conference to announce nothing.
It was to be Zwelinzima Vavi’s big defining moment in his political career. It was supposed to exemplify the tragedy of the breakup of a 30-year-old trade union federation together with the dramatic announcement of his future plans. It could have eclipsed other big political moments in recent history – the announcement by Mosiuoa Lekota that he was “divorcing” the ANC, the announcement of Julius Malema’s expulsion from the ANC, that kiss between Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele.
It could not have been on par with, say, the “recall” of Thabo Mbeki as president. But Zwelinzima Vavi, the face of the giant trade union federation Cosatu for 16 years, a critical voice in national discourse, charting a new political course would have been a significant moment in South Africa’s history.
Except that that’s not what it was.
The two-hour media briefing by the Cosatu general secretary was all about the history of his fallout with the federation’s leaders, excerpts of correspondence that have already been leaked, details of the campaign to make unproven allegations against him stick and how absolutely distressed he is about the expulsion of metalworkers’ union Numsa, that took 340,000 workers and R11 million a year out of Cosatu.
So what is new in all this? What would warrant the drama of a Sunday afternoon media briefing with live television feeds and a massive support group of Numsa members crowding the main boardroom at Cosatu House?
Apparently it was Vavi’s announcement that he would not be attending this week’s special Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) meeting. It is not even the first CEC meeting he is boycotting as he refused to attend one earlier this month.
So not that big a deal, then.
This week’s meeting is expected to consider the forensic report by audit firm Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo into corruption allegations against Vavi. The corruption allegations relate to the sale of the old Cosatu headquarters and purchase of the new building. The audit firm had to extend its investigation to investigate claims of nepotism in the awarding of service contracts.
Cosatu said after its last CEC meeting that Vavi had refused to meet the auditors. Vavi said at the media briefing on Sunday that the allegations were part of a campaign to vilify and smear him. He distributed a 24-page summary of his responses to the allegations against him.
But anybody who has been following this epic saga would know the factional battle began ahead of the September 2012 Cosatu congress and the allegations against Vavi are merely a means to an end. That end is to boot Vavi and his allies out of the federation and silence him politically. He had been a critical voice and thorn in the side of the ANC and government.
That is, until his spiralling fall from grace.
Vavi’s suspension on allegations of misconduct for having sex with a Cosatu staffer in the workplace put him on the back foot and caused the factional divide in the federation to break out in the open.
Since then, there have been calls by Vavi’s allies, led by Numsa, for a special national congress to deal with all the matters of contention. Dlamini’s faction has resisted acceding to the demand as they hold the balance of power in the CEC, where all major decisions are taken between congresses. The coup de grâce for Dlamini and the unions in his camp was the expulsion of Numsa in November, which removed the major organising force in Vavi’s camp out of Cosatu. Seven Cosatu unions then suspended their participation in their federation in protest over Numsa’s expulsion.
With Numsa expelled and all his allies no longer attending Cosatu meetings, Vavi has been like the dying swan in an epic ballet performance, twirling and sinking in the dance of death.
He revealed at the media briefing that he was “in tears” the night Numsa was expelled. But he held on, talking up Cosatu unity in the hope that his faction could win back control, that Numsa would be let back in and the rebel unions would return. He also pinned his hopes on the ANC task team mediating the conflict, thinking they would make the dominant Cosatu faction recant. Of course that was all a pipedream.
As a result of living in this bubble of false hope, Vavi let down his biggest backers, Numsa. They expected him to leave after they were expelled and went out on a limb launching the United Front, hoping that he would be the big political voice leading it. But Vavi was still holding on to his pipedream and stringing Numsa along. His rationale has been that he could not simply walk out of Cosatu and surrender to his enemies.
Vavi’s big concerns have been to clear the corruption cloud over his head but also to carry his support base with him. He is clearly still extremely popular amongst the rank and file in Cosatu but has been apprehensive about whether that popularity would translate into real support when the time came to break ranks. His vacillation in making a leap has been because he has no idea how much of Cosatu would follow him.
Now the moment of reckoning has arrived and Vavi appeared ready to finally take the leap. But then he didn’t.
He announced that he has “reached the end of the road in trying to resolve Cosatu’s internal crisis”. “From this point on I will no longer participate in internal factional wrangling in the organisation. I will rather dedicate my energies to mobilising members to the best of my ability, to implement the mandate of our 11th national congress, and to address workers’ daily concerns and struggles,” Vavi said.
He went further to say he was not resigning from Cosatu. “This is a deliberate act of defiance on my part, even if in the end it turns out to be symbolic. It sends a message to workers that we must refuse to hand the organisation over on a platter, and must only walk away when all alternatives to rescue it have been exhausted.
“I am refusing to make it easy for those who are trying to hijack the organisation, and those want to take control of the federation out of the hands of members,” Vavi said.
What does that mean, exactly? Does Vavi go to his office at Cosatu House every day this week, while his enemies decide his fate a few floors down in the boardroom? Does he roam the streets looking for a worker protest to join?
He could not give a straight answer to these questions. What is certain though is that those attending this week’s CEC meeting will not be amused by Vavi’s media briefing. Vavi used the platform to air much of Cosatu’s dirty laundry, including its precarious financial position since its budget has been depleted by R11 million a year because of Numsa’s expulsion. He also divulged information about troubles in the affiliate unions, such as allegations of corruption under investigation. If Vavi’s enemies were baying for his blood before, they will be in full combat mode now.
It would seem that that is exactly what Vavi wants. By being fired, he gets to claim victimhood and can use his axing as the centrepiece of his campaign.
But is this the right moment?
Hardly. Vavi has lost a lot of momentum since the allegations of impropriety against him first emerged. His voice has diminished on the national stage. His backers have been weakened by having to wait around for him to decide his future. His “non-resignation” cannot be going down well with Numsa, which invaded Cosatu House to support him on Sunday despite their expelled status. Numsa, like all of Vavi’s supporters, need some decisiveness from him.
But more than this, Vavi’s kamikaze act at this point could be perceived as an act of bad faith. Only last week, President Jacob Zuma made a public call for an alliance summit to deal in particular with the problems in Cosatu. Why jump now when a door has been opened to negotiations?
The ANC could, ironically, still come to Vavi’s rescue and prevent Cosatu from expelling him. The party was holding a national executive committee meeting this week and could decide that, in the interests of rebuilding the alliance, Cosatu should hold off on major decisions pending a summit. But the hawks in Cosatu could always decide to disregard the ANC and expel Vavi. They believe that Vavi is an impediment to Cosatu and the alliance unity.
There were about a dozen moments before this week when Vavi should have jumped and didn’t. And there are a myriad of ways Vavi could have handled his inevitable departure from Cosatu better. Had he waited 24 hours, gone to the CEC meeting, attempted to defend himself and left when he was blackballed, and addressed the media on his way out of Cosatu House (still with his throng of Numsa supporters), he could have won the perception war. Right now, he looks like he pulled an attention-seeking stunt on Sunday to make a non-announcement that provided no clarity on his political future.
That non-announcement, however, will in all likelihood push him in a new political direction, which he has been reluctant to chart himself. It will force Cosatu to act against him, harshly, and force him to become a rebel.
But it will not be the big moment it could have been. He missed that moment and must now wait for his enemies to decide his fate. DM
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