Yet another of the dog-eat-dog power struggles in the ANC alliance to have come to characterise the Jacob Zuma political era is coming 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), is a clear sign of moves to purge the alliance of President Zuma’s opponents.
A Mail & Guardian report based on leaked information, last week alleged that a pro-Zuma faction at a Cosatu central executive committee meeting had ganged up against Vavi. Seen as anti-Zuma and anti-ANC, it was insisted 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.
By implication confirming the incident, 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.
In a masterful public relations stroke, however, Vavi got Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini to deny at a press conference that he would be investigated. Dlamini is a supporter of Zuma and widely perceived as hostile to Vavi, seen as an outspoken critic of both corruption in the ANC and of Zuma’s rule.
Vavi’s often outspoken criticism has earned him the ire of powerful union and political figures and of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), as well as the South African Communist Party (SACP), among others.
It is from these quarters that the alleged demand came for him to be investigated. His support lies mainly with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the second biggest union in Cosatu, and the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) and 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 the union, 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 bears the hallmark of a second wave of purges following the recent ANC national conference in Mangaung which re-elected Zuma.
The move against Vavi further reflects a long-standing battle for dominance within Cosatu.
Vavi remains as probably one of the last authentic workers’ voices in Cosatu alongside, perhaps, Numsa general-secretary Irvin Jim. Most of the rest have joined the powerful Zuma cabal in the ANC, which has co-opted a critical and growing mass of Cosatu leaders, with Cosatu president Dlamini leading the way.
For many years Dlamini stood in the public and labour shadow of Vavi, until the Zuma option came along.
Turning Cosatu away from the Vavi approach of being politically non-aligned and critical within the ANC-led alliance context, into a Zuma-supporting force, 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 onto a ‘Cosatu unity’ ticket 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 the federation’s support then went to Zuma in Mangaung.
Rewarded with a seat on the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), Dlamini now finds himself in a very powerful position, with Vavi increasingly walking on politically thin ice in a complete reversal of roles.
Other union leaders were rewarded with NEC positions. In an earlier example of this patronage, teacher and trade unionist Thulas Nxesi was first appointed as a deputy minister and then minister of public works.
Also rumoured is the involvement of the state intelligence agencies in allegedly setting up Vavi in respect of the suggested Cosatu investigation.
And they, together with the police, are currently controlled by Zuma’s close associates previously active in the ANC underground and Operation Vula, which almost scuppered South Africa’s negotiated political settlement in the 1990s. Zuma then played a significant role as intelligence chief.
It was also the intelligence agencies with their so-called ‘spy tapes’ that got Zuma off the hook of having to face corruption charges in court.
At present there are clearly two centres of power and influence within Cosatu, with negative results for the federation.
Already squeezed badly by the fallout of global and local economic conditions of recent years – 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. Furthermore, it pushed violent inter-union rivalry to the next level.
Vavi has been trying hard to stop Cosatu from bleeding to death. But in an ironic twist of fate, the fact that NUM is in serious trouble, rapidly losing members to independent unions, could work in his favour. At the moment NUM happens to be the biggest, most powerful union in Cosatu and, at the same time, strongly pro-Zuma and pro-Dlamini.
But Vavi has one advantage his detractors do not: he 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 in the ANC, government and the state. At the same time, he has kept his own professional and personal life squeaky clean. It is hard to believe that any dirt could be made to stick on him.
It is not the first time Vavi’s enemies have gone the smear campaign route. In 2010 the Mail & Guardian published a story with 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 said that his opponents will try again in three months’ time at another central executive committee meeting to oust him. But, perhaps, as before, he will outsmart them.