by Stef Terblanche

ANC alliance's power struggles

Vavi could be latest victim of Zuma's consolidation campaign

Zwelinzima Vavi, general-secretary of Cosatu
Zwelinzima Vavi.jpg

Yet another of the dog-eat-dog power struggles in the ANC alliance that have come to characterise the Zuma political era, may soon come to a head. Allegations of corruption and other 'transgressions' against Zwelinzima Vavi, general-secretary of the ANC’s labour ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), bears every sign of moves to purge the alliance of President Jacob Zuma’s opponents. 

A Mail & Guardian report based on leaks alleged that a pro-Zuma faction at a Cosatu central executive committee (CC) meeting had ganged up against Vavi. Seen as anti-Zuma and anti-ANC, it was insisted that he be investigated for alleged irregularities relating to the sale of a Cosatu building, his perceived anti-ANC stance, and alleged collaboration with opposition parties and other unions.

Notably, Vavi did not deny it happened and said there were “insinuations” against him. He claimed information was leaked to the media as part of a disinformation campaign by union leaders opposed to him. 

Following the leak to the media of the divisions at the CC meeting, Cosatu put out a statement that a future meeting of the national office bearers (presidents and secretaries) of Cosatu would deal with the matter. The next CC meeting in three months’ time would also deal with it.

Paradoxically, while Cosatu denied that the allegations were made against Vavi, it at the same time set up a process to deal with these allegations.

According to a report in Business Day this morning, the meeting of presidents and secretaries took place yesterday, but attendees were under strict instructions not to speak about its outcomes.

Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven failed to respond to our messages, but it seems Cosatu was going into its important and long-awaited collective bargaining conference still divided around this issue.

Vavi’s often outspoken criticism has earned him the ire of powerful union and political figures, the South African Communist Party and a number of Cosatu-affiliated unions including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu).

It is from these quarters that the alleged demand came for him to be investigated by a commission of inquiry. Vavi’s support lies mainly with the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), the second biggest union in Cosatu, and the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) and their leaders, who were said to have opposed the motion against him.

A similar commission of inquiry investigated former Cosatu president Willie Madisha, resulting in his expulsion from Cosatu, Sadtu and the SACP in 2008 after he had opposed Zuma and campaigned for Thabo Mbeki’s re-election. He was among a large number of Zuma opponents purged from top alliance positions after Zuma’s rise to power at Polokwane in 2007.

The current move against Vavi appears to be part of a second wave of purges following the recent ANC national conference in Mangaung that re-elected Zuma.

It also reflects a long-standing battle for dominance within Cosatu between the pro and anti-Zuma factions and their leaders.

There are strong indications that the charges against Vavi may be fabricated in order to get at him politically and have him removed from his position. It would give the pro-Zuma faction outright control of Cosatu’s leadership structures of Cosatu and strengthen his Zuma’s grip on the alliance.

As the Mail & Guardian succinctly put it, “Vavi is spoiling the perfect alliance.”

"The attack on the unionist is nothing more than a calculated bid to line up everyone behind President Jacob Zuma,” the article continued.

Vavi remains as probably one of the last authentic workers’ voices in Cosatu alongside Numsa general-secretary Irvin Jim and a few others. Most of the rest have joined forces with the powerful Zuma cabal in the ANC, with Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini leading the way.

For many years, Dlamini stood in the public and labour shadow of Vavi.

Turning Cosatu away from Vavi's approach of being politically non-aligned and critical within the ANC-led alliance and into being pro-Zuma had obvious benefits for both Dlamini and Zuma.

The 'plan' was simple: swell the ranks of the pro-Zuma faction in Cosatu by incorporating anti-Zuma unions such as Numsa at last year’s Cosatu national congress. It resulted in a majority of pro-Zuma supporters being elected to the Cosatu central committee “in the interest of presenting a unified Cosatu face to the world”.  And it secured Cosatu’s support for Zuma in Mangaung. 

Rewarded with a seat on the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), Dlamini now finds himself in a very powerful position and Vavi increasingly walking a political tight rope in a complete reversal of roles. Other union leaders were also rewarded with NEC positions.

There is at present clearly two centres of power and influence within Cosatu, with negative results for the federation.

Already badly squeezed by the fallout of global and local economic conditions, resulting in job losses, declining membership figures and finances, the energy-sapping involvement in ANC politics saw the federation and its affiliated unions fast losing credibility on the ground.

Independent unions have been stepping into this gap, sometimes with disastrous consequences all round. The most notable example is that of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which launched a series of wildcat strikes on the platinum mines, resulting in the Marikana tragedy, among others.

Not only did this cost lives, but there was large-scale destruction of mining property, job losses, substantial loss of mining production and tax income, international credit rating downgrades, and even the shutting down of some mines. It also pushed violent inter-union rivalry to the next level.

Vavi has been trying hard to stop Cosatu from bleeding to death. Now, in an ironic twist of fate, the fact that NUM is in serious trouble, rapidly losing members to independent unions, could work in Vavi’s favour. Num, untill now, was the biggest, most powerful union in Cosatu and strongly pro-Zuma and pro-Dlamini.

Vavi is a skilled master of public relations and a favourite of the media. He commands much public goodwill because of his uncompromising stance against corruption.

Thus far, it seems, Vavi has always kept his own professional and personal life squeaky clean. However, the charges levelled against him by his detractors in Cosatu were supposed to have been backed up with proof at yesterday’s meeting.

It is not the first time Vavi’s enemies have gone the smear campaign route. In 2010 the Mail & Guardian published allegations that Vavi’s wife Noluthando was being paid R60 000 a month to market particular financial products to unionists in an alleged serious conflict of interest. Nothing more ever came of this and Vavi survived unscathed.

It is not clear what the next step will be. It has been said that Vavi’s opponents will try again in three months’ time at the next CC meeting to oust him.

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