South Africa

Vavi: We dropped the ball in ’96, now it’s time to pick it up

By Greg Nicolson 8 May 2016

Last week, organisers hailed the Workers' Summit as a milestone towards achieving independent labour unity and a more influential working class. GREG NICOLSON asked Zwelinzima Vavi what it was all about.

Sitting in his corner of the National Union of Metalworkers SA’s (Numsa) regional office in Johannesburg, Vavi has just finished writing a response to President Zuma’s budget debate speech. The former Cosatu general secretary looks rejuvenated, if busy, in his first week as the public face of what he hopes is the start of a new labour movement and a new left in South Africa.

2013, I knew,” he says.

He knew his position within Cosatu, and its ability to advance the interests of the working class within the Alliance and South Africa, was likely over. Vavi’s realisation came from something he says National Health Education and Allied Workers Union General Secretary Fikile Slovo Majola said. Vavi calls Majola Blade Nzimande’s “ideologue” within Cosatu. “He told us that they have made a calculation that Cosatu cannot be maintained in its current form with Numsa and myself inside it.”

It is now three years later, Vavi was hounded by allegations of corruption and suspended after an office sex scandal. The country’s most prominent trade unionist last week was the convenor of the Workers’ Summit. The meeting brought together 1,406 representatives from 29 trade unions and included the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), which represents an additional 22 affiliates.

The country’s left has often been criticised as ineffective and to understand where it is now, how it and he got here, and why a new labour movement is necessary, Vavi goes back 20 years, describing what he sees as betrayals, both ideological and personal.

1996 is when we dropped the ball,” he says, referring to the government’s adoption of the Growth Employment and Redistribution policy, known as GEAR. “We should have dropped the Alliance immediately after 1996. We didn’t. Why? Because we always hoped that through the struggles that we were launching – anti-privatisation campaigns and job losses campaigns – we would convince the majority in the ANC to drop the neoliberal approach. We were wrong. The ANC didn’t drop it. It proceeded with it, up till now. Now, any alliance with the ANC and Cosatu is happening as a betrayal of workers.”

Throughout much of that period, Vavi led Cosatu and didn’t pressure it to exit its alliance with the ANC and SACP. He says, however, he expressed serious concern in Cosatu’s 2010 paper ‘The Alliance at a Crossroads: The battle against a predatory elite and political paralysis’ and his 2012 report to Cosatu’s national congress. Vavi is a scathing critic of President Zuma and he says a 2010 meeting with the president on the failure to implement worker-orientated ANC commitments made at its Polokwane conference led to nothing.

There has been so much happening that is so shocking. It’s like a dream. How could the ANC of all people, people who went through everything they went through – torture, killings, hanging, 30 years in exile, single cells, mental torture, physical torture – how could you allow all of these things that is happening in your name? Where is the bravery?” Vavi asks.

Chief, it’s a lot of painful things here,” he sighs. “I think that Cosatu is stolen. I think that the ANC has been stolen by the staffriders. I think that the SACP has been stolen and all of them together now represent one thing: Zuma. And Zuma is them, because they share everything in common and they will defend each other to death.”

Such positions made Vavi and Numsa targets. Numsa was expelled in November 2014 and Vavi was finally out in March 2015, further fracturing the Alliance and casting out its strongest leftists. Efforts to overturn their expulsions failed to win sufficient support in a Cosatu special national congress.

While both were under attack from the majority of Cosatu’s central executive committee, the country experienced two of the most influential strikes in recent years: the Marikana mineworkers’ strike and the De Doorns farmworkers’ strike. Vavi says he learnt from both.

Marikana, this massive rise of workers… was a revolt of the status quo, which the leadership have found a reason to protect. De Doorns, when workers revolted against the R67 a day they were revolting against the status quo, demanding R150, but knowing that they have no friends in the trade union movement, that they must do that on their own.”

According to Vavi, that’s when he realised Cosatu had followed the path of the Trade Union Council of South Africa, which was prominent into the 1980s until unions and federations more militant and committed to workers started to dominate.

In late 2012 and 2013, Vavi started “ intense discussions” with trade union federations Nactu and the Federation of Unions South Africa (Fedusa) about the future of the union movement. He did so on his own, without a mandate from his federation. There had been discussions about unity between the federations in the past, but the smaller bodies wouldn’t commit while Cosatu was in a political alliance. They also knew that at any congress their issues of concern would be outvoted by the larger Cosatu delegation.

When Vavi spoke to Nactu and Fedusa in 2012 and 2013, he knew Cosatu wasn’t going to survive. “Once Slovo Majola said that in March I knew exactly what that means,” he says.

He followed the internal processes within Cosatu attempting to oust him (or discipline him, depending on which side of the fence you sit on), hoping in particular the ANC’s intervention would resolve the impasse, and challenging decisions in court where he could. Vavi was convinced Zuma and Nzimande were trying to engineer the federation’s split, with allegations extending to calling Vavi a CIA spy.

Around 2013, he spoke to former Cosatu General Secretary Jay Naidoo.

How old are you?” Naidoo asked him.

I’m 51, 52.”

So you only have 20 years to live.”

I said, ‘Fine, yes.’ He said, ‘You must take a decision. Decide what you want to do for the last 20 years. Do you want to spend the 20 years with the people who will definitely cut it by half because you don’t belong to the same value system as they have. You’re frustrated, they’re up against you, they’re stabbing you in the back. Or do you want to spend the remaining 22 years with the people that will enhance it?’”

I went away knowing very well what that means. I couldn’t afford to be in a place where every day there’s a new allegation that they know is unfounded.”

It took three years, while Vavi was criticised for wasting his political capital while pursuing his case in Cosatu, but his expulsion, and that of Numsa, resulted in the Workers’ Summit. Delegates at the summit last week agreed to “building a new, worker-controlled, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, independent, financially self-sufficient, internationalist, socialist-orientated and militant union federation”. They hope to hold the founding congress by 2017 at the latest.

Vavi said the group now needs to draft a constitution and logo, decide on its colours and choose a location for its head office. There’s a planned meeting next week with all unions whose members are facing retrenchments and to mount a jobs campaign to unite vulnerable, informal workers and the unemployed. It also wants to rally against outsourcing within government.

If we can get that going, then we will be a new federation. We will not be a narrow trade union. We will be a broad-based labour front that speaks on behalf of all sections of those that have been fractured by capital,” says Vavi. Like Cosatu, the new federation wants to target the country’s 76 percent of formal workers who aren’t members of a union, which is easier said than done.

A new labour movement can’t just be about our members and their pension funds, it must be about the state of our hospitals, the state of the police services and what they can do, the state of the judiciary, the state of our education and all of that.”

The envisaged new federation would be independent from political parties, but still actively take positions on political issues. Says Vavi:

I’m opposed to any specialised relationship that would mean cosy, brother, dinner champagne, sharing of Blue Labels and slowly sucking the leadership of the trade union movement into the status quo so whatever the failures of government become the failures of the trade unions.”

He continues:

There can be no such rise [in unionisation] until you clean the mess today, meaning that the unions must make themselves relevant to young people in the main, by fighting racism, by fighting the glass ceiling, and therefore fighting for training, fighting for empowerment, fighting for every workplace to have an employment equity plan, fighting for healthy and safety, fighting for environment and fighting against job losses. If you can’t do that then why would the 70 percent be convinced that you are now for them? The reason why they turned their back away from the unions is because the unions were no longer about them but about who’s going to be the MP, who’s going to be the next president of the ANC – all of that rubbish that has got nothing to do with workers.”

The federation of course is yet to come to fruition and Vavi and the idea have been criticised by Cosatu. Cosatu leaders have said he is pursuing the new federation out of anger. They’ve expressed doubt about the likelihood of it being established, questioned the membership of the smaller unions involved, and called for existing unions to work towards unity within the current structures. Nzimande has also expressed doubt over the proposed new federation because a launch date hasn’t been set and past discussions have been delayed.

However, it took years of discussions to establish Cosatu and despite being ridiculed for what seemed like endless talks ahead of the Workers’ Summit, Vavi, Numsa, their allies and independent unions came through on their promise to hold a mass meeting.

But it’s still too early to tell whether the proposed new trade union federation will have a meaningful impact on South Africa’s labour movement. According to Vavi, the future of the country, perhaps even the continent, depends on it.

The Workers’ Summit declaration phrased it: “Never have workers had a greater need for the protection of strong trade unions and a powerful, united federation to defend jobs and living standards and repulse the attacks, yet never since the days of apartheid has the union movement been weaker and more fragmented.” DM

Photo: Zwelinzima Vavi (Greg Nicolson)

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