South Africa

Vavi dismissal: A catalytic moment in a shifting political landscape

By Stephen Grootes 30 March 2015

On Monday night Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee voted to dismiss Zwelinzima Vavi. It had been a long time coming, and probably wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone. This is one of those moments where our politics enters once more the promise of possibility, a situation where almost anything can happen. It’s a catalytic moment on two fronts, both politically, and for worker/boss relations. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The writing of Cosatu’s break-up has been on the wall for so long that we sometimes forget to be shocked. Monday night was one of those moments. As news broke/was leaked that Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee had voted to dismiss Zwelinzima Vavi as general secretary, some would have been forgiven for not quite realising how important this move is. It cannot be underestimated, for the simple reason that there is now no going back. Short of boring drawn-out court proceedings (which would be a tactical error on Vavi’s part) it is surely now impossible for Vavi to return.

For over half of the time South Africans have been free, Vavi has been one of the biggest national figures. He’s been at the forefront of everything, from leading public sector strikes over wages, to taking on Thabo Mbeki over AIDS and Swaziland and Zimbabwe, to leading the charge against Julius Malema within the Alliance, to being the first Alliance figure to show disappointment in President Jacob Zuma. He has been there through it all. He has managed to frame the lexicon we use: “Tsunami” and “political hyena” were both coined by him.

And in the process, amazingly, he has remained ever-popular among workers. Any public event will still see him being mobbed by workers, looking for photo ops with him. For a very long time, his was the voice of sense, of right and of righteousness. He was the person you could call when Siphiwe Nyanda, or Tony Yengeni, or whoever was splattered all over the Sunday papers. He was the person who, at a government event, started his speech with a message of support for Ben Turok as the only MP who voted against the Protection of State Information Bill. And of course, who could forget that it was Vavi who led Cosatu into its complete opposition to e-tolls?

Wherever it appeared that government, or the ANC, or someone in power, was being un-democratic, Vavi could be relied upon to speak up, to tell those in power they doing wrong. He had a massive pulpit, and he used it well. Always being available, always around, always willing. And always upfront. You never had to ask Vavi questions in a press conference, the stories were all in his pre-written statement.

But, surely, no more. He will talk, he will shout, but his voice may not carry as far. He will be freer, but not as listened to. He will be better able to say what he wants, but that very freedom means he has lost some of the power he held.

In the short term, the story of the break-up, the dissolution of Cosatu, is not yet over. As ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said hours before the decision, “Expelling Vavi would be the easiest thing…what comes next would be the most complex.”

The next move probably belongs to those unions who have withdrawn their involvement in Cosatu. The eight unions who did not attend the last CEC meeting and who boycotted this one as well (which explains why this vote went 31-1 in favour of dismissing Vavi). The main reason they had withdrawn was the expulsion of metalworkers union NUMSA. Now their resolve is only likely to be strengthened. They will be able to argue that in fact, as this decision was taken without them, they’ve been the people doing the right thing. They could claim too that as this meeting made such a decision, it was never going to be a genuine attempt to forge unity, but always going to be about factions.

Thus, it seems hugely unlikely that anyone of these unions will actually go back. Surely now, they are de facto outside Cosatu. But there will still be some kicking and screaming before that process is completed.

In the meantime, on the shop floor, other developments are stirring. This same meeting that dismissed Vavi appears to have taken the decision to formally accept the new metalworkers’ union, LIMUSA into the fold. Its role, obviously, is to take the place of NUMSA within Cosatu. It would be foolish to think plans aren’t in place to do the same with the unions that are leaving. Just as NUMSA has said it’s going to expand into other parts of the economy, so Cosatu will compete in those areas too. With a very interesting impact on what happens in factories where workers belonging to competing unions work side by side.

In the longer term, things are more complicated. But this moment matters there too, because this is probably going to add some serious momentum to the new political movement being started by NUMSA. It needs a serious leader, with what the Americans call name-recognition. Of course, Vavi fits the bill. And, he can now claim that he was “spat out” of the Alliance, and thus has a certain sense of legitimacy.

For the moment, Vavi, and those around him, may say that’s not the point of all of this. But NUMSA has always been what you could call an “ideological union”. It’s the only union within Cosatu that once launched its own policy platform (yes, it wants to ban private healthcare, yes, St Johns and Bishops are in mortal danger should it ever take power). They may claim that they are really in it for the workers. But they cannot divorce that from their will to change our society. Most of what Vavi has said in the public domain over the last decade has been about politics, not about workers. Nothing wrong with that; unions are almost always political in nature anyway.

But the prospect of Vavi leading some sort of opposition political party now looks a lot closer than it did say a month ago.

Of course, those who voted in favour of his dismissal on Monday will have been aware of this. They would know that it would give him, and their opponents this momentum. But they did run the risk of looking weak if they stood by and did nothing. Vavi had dared them to act; in politics sometimes you have to take the dare. And there must be a very human sense of frustration on their part – what do you do with someone occupying that position who simply won’t do as you ask, as you all, in the majority agree, and won’t resign? Well, you fire his rear-end.

What Vavi and his allies should probably do, to keep that momentum, is keep the story going. Now that he’s out, he needs to formally resign, publicly and with a heavy heart, etc., etc., his membership of Cosatu. Then, within a week or two, he needs to make a public announcement about his future, i.e. some announcement about what he is going to do within our society. Leave it more than a month, till memories fade, journalists lose their memories, and Sapa’s diary system is longer working. Name recognition matters, but you do have to work at it. It would be foolish to let that happen. So, NUMSA, their allies, and Vavi need to start their federation, and get it going. Vavi needs a public platform to be effective, which needs to be created.

And then, of course, the campaigning needs to begin.

Meanwhile, in the secret tunnel between Cosatu House and Luthuli House (with Hlaudi’s side-shaft to Auckland Park), his opponents will be planning too. Cosatu needs to appoint, temporarily, a new general secretary. Bheki Ntshalintshali will probably play that role. But it should have a conference, soon, to give the whole thing democratic legitimacy. That congress should be a show of strength, proof that Cosatu is bigger than Vavi. And, of course, the ANC itself will be preparing too – they know that they have another opponent on their turf, and will plan their response.

Our politics is changing, and this is one of those moments that show us how quickly things can move, giving us an insight into how it is slowly becoming more competitive. DM

Main Pic: Those were the days. Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi leads a protest march in Pretoria August 16, 2001. (Reuters)


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