Opinionista Ian Ollis 14 September 2012

Cosatu: To Vavi, or not to Vavi?

Is Zwelinzima Vavi nearing the end of the road? It’s a vexing question. It has, after all, been a very bad year for Cosatu. And it may turn worse yet. 

In August 2011, workers never came out to strike in Johannesburg, embarrassing the Union Federation. In December, Cosatu admitted that it felt threatened by changes to the labour legislation. Then there was the deal in the textile industry, forcing a 30% drop in minimum wages. So, too, the Garvis case on strike violence went badly. SATAWU lost the case three times (in the Cape High Court, the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Concourt). The final judgement upholding the findings again forces SATAWU to pay damages to the victims of the march-gone-wrong, as well as legal fees – in the process setting a precedent for making unions or march organisers pay if their members on an organised march trashed public or private property. Oops – debts mounting, and probably union fees going up! 

Cosatu has lost the battle to ban labour broking, too. And several other amendments in the new Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the Labour Relations Act have gone against the trade union behemoth. Its protests on these issues, not to mention the Gauteng e-toll, seem to have fallen on deaf ears. 

In 2012 things, aren’t looking so hot either. First it was Cosatu’s thugs throwing rocks at DA marchers during the youth wage subsidy protest. This was followed by Vavi taking potshots at Sadtu, Cosatu’s teachers’ union, over the Limpopo textbook crisis. They shot back, denouncing him in public. When Marikana arrived, the NUM (Cosatu’s mineworkers’ union) showed itself too to be dangerously out of control, with a large breakaway known as Amcu.

Vavi’s leadership on all these issues has been poor. He has certainly not prioritised unity within his union federation; and with the split in the NUM and their absence at most Marikana funerals, they seem to be in severe trouble. Vavi’s attempt to shift the blame elsewhere has sounded hollow in the public’s ears.

To be honest, I expected that he would be bought off by the Zuma administration. The ANC is tiring of Union opposition at every turn. The model with the SACP was to get Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin into cabinet and essentially shut down any meaningful opposition from the communists. They even got Buti Manamela to speak in the debate on the youth wage subsidy, to defend the ANC when his movement patently has a different view. It’s a lame duck. 

However, Vavi has remained outside, looking in. ANC insiders tell me that he has burned too many bridges in the movement to be offered a cabinet position. Where to now? He has been the effective leader of the labour movement for perhaps too many years, and has no career prospects in the Tripartite Alliance. Where does one go from there? Like Trevor Manuel, his only career prospects for promotion lie outside the camp now.  

As next week’s Congress approaches, however, the various big voting blocks in the movement are jostling for the limelight. But something has changed! The carefully constructed balance of power between the major unions is coming unglued. Sadtu is mad at Vavi for blaming them, and will probably lead the charge for the “time for change” camp. With NUM on such a bad foot after Marikana, their contribution is compromised. Vavi can probably count on NUMSA’s (the metalworkers union) support, and Irvin Jim has openly declared support for his re-election, but it’s far from a done deal. SAMWU won’t say who they’re supporting. You can be certain of a fiery conference. 

Cosatu cannot count on healing words from its alliance partner, the SACP, either. A spat has broken out over office space, which the South African Communist Party (SACP) has been using freely at the expense of Cosatu. Clearly the Communists are financially in a pickle, and so they should be. Who would give them money? They never stand for election, and it is questionable whether they make any real contribution in the national debate. Cosatu has clearly grown tired of bankrolling their bottom line. With the SACP out in the cold, support for Vavi and the current leadership of the trade union movement will be scant indeed.

With so many recent defeats and blame being placed at the door of one or other unit in the delicately balance federation, sparks are bound to fly, and there will be gnashing of teeth. It is likely that Vavi will still muster enough support for his cause, but the animal is wounded, and we are likely to see further breakaways in future – just as we saw with AMCU. 

It’s going to be interesting to see whether this movement can get itself out of the corner that it has played itself into, in the court of public opinion, but that is unlikely. Forty-four people lie dead on the fields of Marikana; textbooks are being dumped in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga instead of being delivered to schools; the legal fees are starting to mount. Cosatu is in need of a serious re-think if it doesn’t want to see itself wane in significant influence. But like a wounded dog, it’s not going to lie down peacefully. We should anticipate a very bumpy ride next week at the Cosatu Congress. DM

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