President Jacob Zuma is (indirectly, of course) behind the campaign to oust Zwelinzima Vavi, says Allister Sparks.
Durban - President Jacob Zuma is an improbable figure to imagine in the role of a Margaret Thatcher cracking down on South Africa’s trade union movement. Yet that is the reality behind the campaign being waged to oust or seriously weaken Zwelinzima Vavi, long-serving general secretary of Cosatu.
It is obvious that Zuma is behind this campaign. Not directly, of course; Zuma doesn’t work that way.
Like his predecessor, he works through surrogates, including members of the intelligence services, which have now been conveniently consolidated under his direct control. And don’t forget that our president is experienced at this game, having been chief of ANC intelligence during the Struggle years.
This kind of indirect, back-alley political manipulation is, in any case, an unfortunate legacy of those Struggle years when the ANC, outlawed and driven underground, had not only to operate in secret but be constantly on the alert for state agents and infiltrators. This induced a conspiratorial atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia with the proliferation of spooks, double agents and conspiracy theories stifling open, forthright behaviour.
The surrogate operators in this case are a group of officials running affiliate unions who believe Cosatu should work more closely with the ANC and who want to ingratiate themselves with the president by ending the critical independence of the general secretary.
They are led in this enterprise by Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini.
Why is Zuma doing this? Given, as Carol Paton pointed out in an article in Business Day on Monday, that the main potential threat to the ANC is coming from the left with deepening poverty and social distress, the emergence of new trade unions and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, one would have thought the last thing Zuma wanted was a weakened Cosatu and the prospect of an alienated Vavi forming a socialist workers party of his own.
But the truth is that Zuma finds himself in a cleft stick. His years of inertia as he tried to balance the ANC’s conflicting factions have left him in a situation where he desperately needs to stimulate the economy and job-creation if he is to escape the consequences of deepening social distress. But he has found Cosatu, under Vavi’s influence, vetoing policies he wanted to implement to achieve those aims.
For his part, Vavi has felt betrayed. He stuck his neck out in giving his vital support to the campaign to replace Thabo Mbeki with Zuma at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007, expecting that Zuma would adopt more left-wing policies if he gained the Presidency.
But to Vavi’s disgust, Zuma has failed to do so. Indeed, from Vavi’s perspective the policy drift, especially around the time of last year’s Mangaung conference, has been slightly to the right.
Behind all this lies a fundamental difference between the two leaders over where the locus of government policy formulation should lie. Zuma believes it is the prerogative of the ANC as the party which the electorate voted into power. Vavi believes it should lie collectively within the alliance partnership.
The result of these differences and Vavi’s increasing disaffection is that Cosatu has effectively vetoed several policy proposals announced by Zuma which Vavi didn’t like. First was Zuma’s announcement that he was considering declaring teaching to be “an essential service”, which would have prohibited teachers from going on strike, which the SA Democratic Teachers Union has been wont to do as examinations loom.
Second was Zuma’s acceptance of a proposal, first advanced by the DA, to implement a youth wage subsidy to help young unskilled people obtain jobs. Cosatu bluntly blocked it, saying it would lead to employers replacing existing workers with cheaper youngsters.
The third and most confrontational issue arose when Zuma announced at Mangaung that both the cabinet and the ANC national conference had accepted the National Development Programme (NDP) and that there was now a national consensus to move ahead with this 30-year plan. This promptly drew a statement from Vavi that Cosatu would find it difficult to campaign for the ANC in next year’s national election if the NDP, drafted by a commission headed by Vavi’s bête noire, Trevor Manuel, was part of its campaign platform.
One can hardly blame Zuma for finding this kind of obstructionism unacceptable. But then, that is the very nature of coalition governments. They are paralysing. Which is why I have long been contending that the tripartite alliance is becoming unsustainable, that sooner or later it is bound to break up.
Zuma’s problem is that he has allowed this issue to fester far too long without addressing it. He entered into a compact with Vavi six years ago that carried obvious payback implications, as political deals always do, but he neither delivered on Vavi’s expectations nor came to a reconciliatory agreement with him. Now he is trying to get rid of him, an exercise complicated by the fact that Vavi has strong support among ordinary workers as against the more opportunistic officials heading the affiliates.
The risk Zuma runs is that if his surrogates overplay their hand and expel Vavi from Cosatu, having already suspended him as general secretary, he may well form a socialist workers party and add seriously to the growing threat to the ANC from the left.
To reduce this risk, they are trying to deal with him on a disciplinary issue rather than a political one.
First they tried to charge him with corruption related to the sale of Cosatu’s headquarters building in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, and when that failed to fly they picked up on a sexual encounter Vavi has admitted to having with a junior staff member in the Cosatu offices.
That was tantamount to Vavi handing his enemies a loaded gun, yet it would be ironic, to put it mildly, if Zuma’s backers were to expel Vavi on the strength of a sexual misdemeanour, given the president’s own well-established record of promiscuous behaviour.
My hunch is that they will stop short of that and try to devise a punishment to discredit Vavi and weaken him. That would also, of course, weaken Cosatu, the biggest and by far the best-organised component of the ruling tripartite alliance.
Nor would it be easy. Vavi is a proud man and he is clearly aggrieved at the way he is being treated. My expectation is that he will break away, if not before, then soon after next year’s national election which is only eight months away.
The emergence of a socialist workers party led by Vavi – who has always expressed his admiration for Brazilian trade unionist Lula da Silva who formed a party of that name and came to power in his country – would be a transformative event in our politics.
It would split the ANC itself and pose a serious challenge to its hold on power.
That, in turn, would open the way for new coalition formulations and the complete reconfiguration of our politics.
Exciting days lie ahead.
* Allister Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.