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Vavi should not become an ANC leader – yet

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

The ANC likes to call itself a broad church, but  it isn’t. Not anymore. Which is why South Africa desperately needs Cosatu. Say what you will of them, but they still act as the only effective political counterweight to the ANC. And, as long as Zwelinzima Vavi heads Cosatu, they’ll manage to stay ideologically separate to the ANC.

At some point, there is going to be a massive push from within the ANC to have Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi become a top-six official. The rumours will seem truthful because it’s the logical next step for Vavi. He’s easily Cosatu’s most powerful leader, which in turn makes him one of South Africa’s most influential politicians. And, as we’ve seen with Cyril Ramaphosa, Kgalema Motlanthe and Gwede Mantashe, sooner or later the really influential unionists get poached by the ANC.

Basically, there are two ways in which a “make Vavi the next ANC secretary general” move gain traction: by convincing delegates he is the moral compass the party so desperately needs, or by some Machiavellian scheme to remove him from Cosatu to make the federation less of a thorn in the ruling party’s side.

Hopefully for us all, Vavi will stay on as the general secretary of Cosatu. The clearly defined roles of the ANC, Cosatu and the communists have become blurred. Ever since Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin became ministers in Jacob Zuma’s government, the SACP is no longer the tail that wags the dog in the tripartite alliance. They’ve gone quiet. They no longer have the ability to criticise the government. How can they? They are part of the government now. What happened to the SACP can happen to Cosatu. The main reason why it hasn’t happened yet is Vavi. He has managed to keep the federation exclusive even when the ideological differences between it and the ANC are eroding.

Like the soothsayer calling out “beware the Ides of March” to Julius Caesar, we should all be begging Vavi not to leave Cosatu. At least, not just yet.

If you would cast your mind back over the last three years or so, can you name the things over which Cosatu and the ANC have seriously differed? For now, the only differences that cut deep are the Protection of State Information Bill and labour brokers. Other than that, you get the sense that if Cosatu accepted Zuma’s invitation for the union’s members to swell the ranks of the ANC, it would mean the ideological death of the federation. The ANC would swallow Cosatu in the same way that the SACP has been swallowed.

Why is that such a bad thing?

Yes, Cosatu has a bad reputation when it comes to the methods it sometimes uses to get its point across. But consider this: there is no way in hell the media and the sign-waving public would have managed to extricate concessions on e-tolls, the secrecy bill and labour brokers from the ANC. Cosatu did that.

You’ve also got to remember that there are a lot of really unscrupulous people in the party. From about 2009 until the latter part of last year, the corrupt, money-grubbing section of the party seemed to be on the up-and-up. Tenderpreneurs seemed to have a finger in every pie. Political hyenas were all over the place. The expulsion of whatisface, that youth leader guy, kind of put a damper on that faction’s rise, but it is still there. The traditional left of the party pulls against that sort of thing. They counter nationalism, factionalism, and all the other seriously nasty tendencies the ANC sometimes displays.

The ruling party has started displaying extreme allergies to “centres of power” that fall outside its ambit. The courts are one. Cosatu is another. The ANC would have to fiddle with the Constitution to seriously curtail the powers of the courts. All it needs to do to neuter Cosatu is to hire Vavi.

I’ve mentioned the two reasons why the ANC would want to bring Vavi in. I firmly believe the main reason why the current ANC would try and convince Vavi to come in is the moral  superiority he currently carries against them. In a way, the Cosatu general secretary is like Motlanthe – scandals don’t seem to dent his reputation.

But it is very possible for the ANC’s strategists to say: “Look, if we really need to deal with Cosatu, we’ll talk to Vavi and convince him to run for something like secretary general. (Mantashe won’t be around for ever). Or perhaps he’ll be happier with a Cabinet posting. The point being, he’s no longer the leader of Cosatu. He’s no longer the guy keeping the federation separate and unique from the ANC, and we can turn Cosatu into a glorified desk of the party.”

A strong, vocal Cosatu is good for all of us. Sure, they sometimes trash Cape Town during a serious strike. But a South Africa with no Cosatu is a frightening place. Heaven forbid that Vavi should allow himself to be lured away from the important work he does now. DM


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