If anyone in the tripartite alliance looked like they might come out of the ANC’s 53rd national conference in Mangaung unscathed, it was Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
He seemed to have decided his game plan long ago: remain Cosatu boss to prevent the trade union federation from undergoing a nasty leadership battle for his post, and declare that he did not want a position in the ANC national executive committee.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans…
The Mail & Guardian reported that plans were under way to put up a challenger to Vavi at the Cosatu national congress next month. It said senior leaders of Cosatu affiliates and from the SACP had held behind-the-scenes meetings recently to discuss a strategy to remove Vavi.
The name that was being touted as an alternative was Fikile Majola, general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu).
There is one reason alone why Majola would make a last-minute run for the post: to deliver Cosatu as a bloc behind President Jacob Zuma’s campaign for a second term at Mangaung, an idea at which Vavi balks.
Vavi was one of the champions for Zuma’s election at Polokwane in 2007 and threw the weight of his two million-strong trade union federation behind the campaign. During Zuma’s criminal trials and in the run-up to the Polokwane conference, Vavi kept Cosatu united behind Zuma.
But soon after Zuma assumed power, Vavi became disenchanted with the new president’s behaviour and weak leadership.
He has become a vocal critic against the government, particularly on issues of corruption. Under his direction, Cosatu said it was refraining from naming a preferred candidate for the ANC president position.
While Vavi, who has held the position of Cosatu general secretary since 1998, initially said he would step down at this year’s congress to make way for new blood, he changed his mind when it became clear that there was no obvious successor. The two mentioned as possible candidates were Majola and Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa).
Because of the unlikelihood of reaching consensus on either candidate, and in order to prevent Cosatu being divided by a leadership battle, Vavi decided he would stay on for a fifth term at next month’s congress. He has also said he does not wish to serve in any leadership position in the ANC and wants to focus all his attention on Cosatu.
However his reluctance to get Cosatu behind Zuma’s bid for re-election and his perceived close relationship with Jim, who is openly advocating for leadership change at Mangaung, has triggered an underhand campaign to remove him and replace him with Majola, a close Zuma ally.
If the Cosatu congress is forced into a vote over the general secretary position, the situation could get dicey for Vavi.
Among those backing Zuma’s second-term bid are Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini, the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) led by general secretary Frans Baleni, and Nehawu.
They are being pushed to challenge Vavi by SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, who has fallen out with the Cosatu general secretary. Their relationship soured when Vavi slammed Nzimande’s purchase of a 7-series BMW on the government tab and became critical of the SACP leader’s neglect of his party position, intimating that Nzimande should resign from the cabinet. Nzimande is one of the key proponents for Zuma’s second-term bid.
NUM is Cosatu’s biggest affiliate and highly influential in the trade union federation. The Sunday Independent reported that NUM and Cosatu leaders had a tense bilateral meeting last week, at which the mineworkers’ union was highly critical of Vavi’s leadership.
Vavi was accused of fomenting divisions in the federation, and his indirect business interests, through his wife Noluthando, were raised, it was reported.
NUM reportedly also reprimanded Vavi for unilaterally deciding to step down as general secretary and then later recanting without discussing the matter internally.
Vavi said details of the closed meeting were leaked to “assassinate my character” and was an attempt to “tarnish my standing among workers on the eve of Cosatu’s congress”.
If NUM and Nehawu, the third-biggest union after Numsa, get behind Majola, the Cosatu congress could become highly divisive and could cause further instability in the alliance ahead of Mangaung.
Vavi’s political report to the Cosatu congress, in which he motivated against supporting ANC leaders without set conditions, is also likely to be hotly debated at next month’s meeting.
According to a draft version of the report, which has been leaked, Vavi said Cosatu should avoid the “danger” of supporting ANC leaders who it wouldn’t be able to hold to account later.
“The congress needs to address the risk of us repeating history by basing our actions purely on trust,” the Sunday Times quoted the report as saying.
In the report, Vavi is highly critical of factionalism, patronage and corruption in the ANC. “In our view, a multiple crisis is emerging in our society, which, if not addressed, has the potential to result in an organisational implosion and social explosion which could reverse our democracy.
“These trends are part of a general crisis of failing to act decisively on a broad range of issues, as a result of divisions in the movement and the paralysis in the state,” Vavi said.
According to the Sunday Times, Vavi acknowledged that Cosatu was divided over how to deal with the problems in the ANC and government. “Perceptions are setting in that some union leaders are reluctant to take up certain issues for fear of embarrassing the ANC,” Vavi says in the report.
Despite the prospect of a last-minute challenge against Vavi, it is unlikely to succeed in dislodging him. However, in the interests of preserving Cosatu’s internal cohesion and knowing his every move is under scrutiny, Vavi is likely to be more circumspect in his public statements.
But with his penchant to call it like it is, he is unlikely to be on mute mode for long.
If he does retain his position in Cosatu, he will continue to keep the spotlight on the ANC and the government.
What his detractors may not be considering is that if Vavi is not re-elected as Cosatu general secretary, he will be free to stand for a leadership position in the ANC.
His inclusion on an anti-Zuma slate for one of the top six positions in the ANC could provide more trouble for the incumbent’s camp and consolidate Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s ticket.
Vavi hails from the Eastern Cape, which is now a battlefield province divided between the Zuma and Motlanthe camps. If Vavi is booted out of Cosatu but ends up on Motlanthe’s ticket at Mangaung, he could tip the Eastern Cape in their favour. He could also draw support from other provinces and the ANC Youth League.
The Zuma camp would need to consider if kicking Vavi out of Cosatu would be a worthwhile gamble. It could be a move that backfires horribly come December.
l This column also appears in the Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za and follow them on twitter @dailymaverick