The day before Women’s Day, Corruption Watch issued a statement that “publically censured” Zwelinzima Vavi, but failed to take any action against him. The “censure”, of course, is meaningless. It represents a limp-wristed flick of the hand, the sort of “naughty boy!” with a wink and a nudge to which victims and survivors of sexual abuse have become accustomed. But the inaction of the corruption watchdog speaks to a deeper problem: there are too few prominent black people in “progressive circles” who have the ear of those in the state. In siding with Vavi, Corruption Watch raises many questions about its own credibility.
The statement that Corruption Watch issued last week read like the SADC Observer Mission Report on Zimbabwe. It provided a commendable and strongly worded description of Mr Vavi’s wrongdoing, and ended with a “censure” which is the moral equivalent of SADC’s declaration that the Zimbabwe election was “free and peaceful”. Like SADC, it seems Corruption Watch was hoping that no one would notice that the “fair” is missing.
A full two weeks after everyone in the country had concluded that the unequal power dynamic between Vavi and the complainant made his admitted actions highly inappropriate, the board finally weighed in by agreeing with the public consensus, and then essentially indicating that they would do nothing about it. Given what the day has come to mean in a country with soaring rates of crime and violence, it is apt that the statement was issued on Women’s Day.
Corruption Watch’s failure to meaningfully sanction the trade union leader will have obvious repercussions for a body that seeks to hold others accountable when they abuse power and use undue influence. The organisation was provided with an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to integrity in public leadership. Sadly, it failed to live up to its own standards. It remains to be seen whether this strategic blunder will be used against the group as it carries out its investigations and its advocacy work.
It would be naïve not to recognise that the board is likely to have been fearful of getting drawn into factional fights within the ANC and Cosatu. Frankly that should have been a consideration when the body appointed Vavi to their board a year ago. By the time the organisation was founded, Vavi had shown fundamental errors of judgement and taken ethical shortcuts for political purposes on a number of occasions. These should have been worrying signs for the watchdog.
In 2006 Vavi wrote a barely comprehensible op-ed in the Mail & Guardian urging the media to apologise for using the phrase “generally corrupt” to describe the relationship between Zuma and Schabir Shaik. He went so far as to suggest that in the long run if they continued to persecute Zuma the media would “pave the way for a future dictator to … curb media freedom.”
Two years later, in 2008, Vavi and his then BFF Julius Malema suggested that they were prepared to “kill for Zuma”. Vavi’s exact words were: “So yes, because Jacob Zuma is one of us, and he is one of our leaders, for him, we are prepared to lay our lives (sic) and to shoot and kill.” This statement was made just days after Malema stated “We are prepared to die for Zuma. We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma.”
The point in all this is that Vavi was always deeply flawed, and that Corruption Watch may have erred in selecting him to represent them in the first place.
The question is why such an august body would be prepared to overlook both the original sins that Vavi carried with him when he joined them, and why it is prepared to continue to carry him, given the current sin to which he has admitted.
The answers are, of course, complicated, but they speak to a broader set of challenges faced by the civil society sector. Corruption Watch’s reluctance to sanction Vavi is about the fact that within progressive circles there are far too few prominent black people who are seen as “independent” and yet who also have access to people within the ruling party and the state. This is not healthy, and it has led to a situation in which the prominent few matter disproportionately to a sector struggling to access spaces of influence.
In this environment, Vavi has been a rare commodity. His influence and acceptance within civil society groups like Corruption Watch reflects the polarised nature of our society. There is a growing rift between NGOs that lobby for policy change and are critical of the state and the ruling elite, and those in power who see their detractors as unpatriotic and suspect them of having a sinister agenda.
Leaders like Vavi have played a critical role in bridging the gap. Yet when confronted with situations such as this current one, groups like Corruption Watch find it hard to play the role of champions of the poor and defenders of the downtrodden.
The reality is that like all people, the do-gooders in civil society are as flawed and as prone to political manipulation and dogma, and as beleaguered by a shortage of leaders and skills, as the rest of our society. Because there are so few high-profile people of good social standing who have demonstrated integrity and a commitment to classic progressive and liberal causes when they stumble, the civil society response is to protect them rather than to challenge them.
In the past few years there have been revelations about mismanagement and abuse of resources in the NGO sector. There have been serious questions of impropriety raised about the conduct of prominent people who have been the toast of the NGO sector. Justice Dikgang Moseneke, Moeletsi Mbeki and now Zwelinzima Vavi have all been dogged by allegations of financial and/or sexual impropriety of some sort or another.
In each case, the revelations have either been greeted by silence from the civil society sector – normally the first ones to speak out on matters of corruption and influence peddling – or by a quiet closing of the ranks. In the case of Vavi, the scandal was so salacious that it could not be ignored, but you can read in Corruption Watch’s response a real reluctance to act.
In all of this, as many others have pointed out, the woman whose face has been exposed, whose ID number, cell phone and photograph were made available for the world to see by her employer, has been but a footnote.
Corruption Watch had a real opportunity to take the side of the victim rather than the victor in this case. The board was not in a position to pronounce on Vavi’s innocence or guilt in relation to rape charges that were withdrawn, but it was in a position to withdraw its support for him on the basis of his admitted actions.
Instead, their message is loud and clear: in the new South Africa your best bet is to side with power. Even the defenders of the marginalised know that standing with the loser may be the principled thing to do, but in a society riven by “larger battles” it is seldom the wise choice.
Women’s Month be damned, impunity wins once more. DM
* The author of this article is the ungovernable daughter of one of the board members of Corruption Watch. She did not share this article with Mr. Msimang before publication. She waits in dreaded fear for THE call.
"Go down this set of stairs and then just run - run as fast as you can." ~ Lt David Brink, 9/11