Leadership in South Africa’s organised labour movement is imploding

Leadership in South Africa’s organised labour movement is imploding
(Source: Gallo Images / Vecteezy)

The political fallout from Zwelinzima Vavi’s suspension from Saftu has been swift. Saftu’s top leadership structure has been left rudderless at a time when workers remain vulnerable to job losses.

South Africa’s organised labour movement has been rocked by leadership ructions and petty factional battles at a crucial time when the country’s workforce is facing growing threats of unemployment, and pay rise negotiations are set to start soon in several sectors of the economy.

The leadership of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) has been thrown into a tailspin in recent weeks after the labour federation’s secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi was temporarily stripped of his powers and placed under suspension.  

Four other leaders have also been suspended by Saftu’s national executive committee (NEC) for bringing the federation into disrepute by not following proper processes when they suspended Vavi.

Those suspended and accused of usurping the powers of the Saftu NEC when they ousted Vavi include the federation’s president Mac Chavalala, second deputy president Thabo Matsose, national treasurer Motshwari Lecogo, and deputy general secretary Moleko Phakedi.

Vavi, a prominent trade unionist and former Cosatu general secretary, has become the public face of Saftu since its launch in April 2017, with the help of trade union affiliates including the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and many others. Vavi, Numsa and other trade unions were disgruntled and wanted to form a new and alternative labour movement (Saftu) after their expulsion from Cosatu owing to their push for Cosatu’s breakaway from an ANC-led alliance. So, Vavi’s suspension from Saftu – after helping to launch it five years ago and growing its membership to about 800,000 – is significant.

Saftu battles have economic implications

Saftu’s leadership ructions come at a time when questions are being raised by labour observers about whether the role of trade unions and federations in the jobs market and the broader economy is helpful or harmful.

Trade unions and federations are often accused of endorsing practices that prohibit job creation and promote an inflexible labour environment for workers and employers. The Saftu leadership squabbles also come at a time when various sectors of the economy, including the platinum mining and bus passenger industries, are set to start pay rise negotiations for workers in April. The Saftu leadership squabbles might be a distraction during wage negotiations, resulting in workers not securing fair wage adjustments or having their rights protected in a broken economy.

Mamokgethi Molopyane, a labour and policy analyst, says the kerfuffle at Saftu underscores the “outright struggle for control” of the federation, suggesting that the top brass is not prioritising worker interests but focusing on personality clashes. “Leaders are too preoccupied with advancing self-interest including ascending and positioning themselves for deployment,” says Molopyane.

Labour analyst Michael Bagraim says an environment characterised by a weak economy and a high jobless rate creates “financial trauma” for trade unions and federations because if more workers are out of jobs, they no longer pay membership fees to union bosses. “Such financial pressures intensify any leadership squabbles and create a split in the union movement, as seen in Saftu. Such cracks in union circles are concealed if the economy is improving and growing. But the economy is currently bleeding, and factional troubles are becoming greater and clearer,” he says.

Reason(s) for Vavi’s suspension

The official Saftu position is that Vavi has been temporarily ejected because he was charged with “alleged violations of the [Saftu] constitution, breach of administration and finance policy and disrespecting/undermining constitutional structural decisions and resolution”.

Vavi has been accused by the now-suspended top brass of abusing Saftu’s credit card to the tune of R65,000 for his personal interests. Vavi has released a document detailing more than 80 questionable transactions on Saftu’s credit card, which were used as the basis for his suspension.

The document reveals that Vavi spent money on airtime, mobile data, Gautrain rides, e-hailing service Bolt, tollgate charges, groceries, Adobe software, advertising on Facebook for the live streaming of Saftu press conferences, and technology accessories including a power bank and earphones at the iStore.

Vavi has denied all allegations of wrongdoing, describing the charges against him as “deliberately vague, spurious, wild and unsubstantiated allegations”. He has also taken umbrage with the process of his suspension, saying the Saftu constitution gave its national executive committee, rather than office-bearers, the power to suspend him. He also says his suspension was procedurally flawed because he wasn’t allowed to state his case about the transactions.

Vavi didn’t respond to DM168’s many requests for comment.

A Saftu insider says that if Vavi was going to be nailed on one thing it would be his “lavish lifestyle”, which is creating tensions in Saftu circles.

“Vavi lives quite a lavish lifestyle. He has a driver and is often chauffeured in a fancy car. He’s probably the most expensive person in Saftu,” says the insider. The insider also adds that Vavi is “respected and liked in Saftu circles because he unites people and he is passionate about worker rights”.

Zwelinzima Vavi vs Irvin Jim

The reason behind Vavi’s suspension is not clear but there is a lot of speculation surrounding it. This year is a big year for Saftu, as the federation will be electing new leaders during its national congress scheduled for May.

Vavi is believed to be campaigning for re-election as the secretary-general. Those against his re-election argue that Vavi has become the face and personality of Saftu, creating a “danger of workers not being able to separate an organisation from an individual or creating personality politics”, says the federation’s insider.

Speculation is rife that Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim is allegedly behind Vavi’s suspension from Saftu and is campaigning to ruin Vavi’s bid for re-election.

TimesLIVE has reported that there has been a falling-out between the two trade unionists over the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP), a worker party that was founded by Numsa in 2018 and later contested the 2019 national elections. SRWP, which is seen as Jim’s pet project in the realm of politics, had a poor showing at the elections and failed to secure a seat in Parliament.

Jim has reportedly been pressuring Vavi to endorse the SRWP and adopt the party into Saftu’s fold. But Vavi has resisted such pressures and, as punishment, Jim has allegedly influenced his suspension from Saftu. But Jim has rejected such suggestions, saying Saftu is an independent federation, adding that he and Vavi are free to hold different political opinions. “Saftu has a very clear position on political parties. The federation is independent and has not aligned itself with any political party,” says Jim.

Vavi and Jim are seen to be on opposite sides of politics

Vavi is a critic of the ANC, former president Jacob Zuma and the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) crowd within the ANC. Meanwhile, Jim is perceived to be less critical and is thus often seen to be aligned with the RET crowd, which he disputes in a published Numsa press statement.

“There are others, who are politically bankrupt, who peddle the ridiculous claim that the Numsa leadership is working 24/7 with the RET faction of the ANC. How can the Numsa leadership be said to be negotiating a return to Cosatu, but at the same time it is also being accused of trying to impose SRWP on Saftu, and at the same time it’s a member of the RET?” Jim has questioned.

“This is the work of divisive wedge drivers who are tip-toeing in the shadows and who are working night and day to divide Numsa and to liquidate the federation Saftu.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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