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Johannesburg - Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has staked his personal integrity on disproving allegations of dodgy dealings to benefit himself and relatives, in the sale of the trade union federation’s old head office.
It’s a high-risk manoeuvre in the cut-and-thrust of politics in the year ahead of elections, and comes at a time when whispering campaigns seem part of the political toolkit.
There’s no doubt that election planning and strategising for5 2014 is already in full swing; even opposition parties with a handful or fewer MPs in Parliament are holding election meetings.
Cosatu has always played a central role in mobilising for the ANC, and has committed itself whole-heartedly to doing so again next year.
Its commitment to the governing party, and as a partner in the tripartite alliance with the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP), is a no-brainer. The question arises, however – what kind of a Cosatu is envisaged?
And here its gets tricky.
It’s too simplistic to say Vavi is too outspoken on corruption in government and the ANC – remember the choice description of “political hyenas” for those using their political connections for personal gain? – and thus an enemy of the ANC under President Jacob Zuma. It’s also too simplistic to argue that smear campaigns are being used to discredit Vavi, and to represent him as the proverbial knight in shining armour.
The internal dynamics of Cosatu are central to the unfolding drama. The character of Cosatu has changed – public service sector unions now account for half the federation’s members. And more than one out of every five members describe themselves as managers or professionals, and another 13 percent are clerical workers, according to the workers’ survey prepared ahead of Cosatu’s congress in September.
By some accounts, these public sector unions are moving to assert themselves and their way of doing things: political negotiations, particularly within the tripartite alliance, and through negotiating forums like the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), rather than street protests as were seen over the Gauteng e-tolls, atpublic hearings on the Eskom tariff hikes and over farmworkers’ daily wage demands in the Western Cape.
Such protests, alongside increasingly violent, bloody and lethal service delivery demonstrations, have embarrassed the government.
What has also changed is the number of trade union leaders seen as pro-Zuma in the ANC national executive committee (NEC) since Mangaung: Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) president Senzeni Zokwana, National Eduction, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) general-secretary Fikile Majola and Cosatu Free State secretary Sam Mashinini.
It is these leaders’ unions that are being fingered in the contest over Vavi’s role in a déjà vu of the bruising run-up to last year’s congress.
While careful backroom brokering then resulted in a show of unity with all the top officials re-elected, similar fault lines appear to have re-emerged, pointing to fundamental sticking points within the labour federation.
Broadly-speaking, the metal workers’ union Numsa, the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) and a plethora of smaller unions support Vavi, while his opposition includes Nehawu, the teachers’ union Sadtu, the police union Popcru and the NUM, which despite a Cosatu-backed “Hands off NUM” remains embattled on the platinum belt where companies are closing its offices and renegotiating recognition agreements as the union continues to bleed members to the Associated Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).
Amid any push to reposition Cosatu vis-a-vis the governing ANC and SACP – its recent central committee meeting criticised “blanket oppositionism” for weakening the labour federation and offered help to return “worker control” over union investment arms – tensions have escalated to such a degree that Cosatu has called in “independent facilitators”.
The federation categorically denied there was even a call for an investigation into Vavi during its recent three-day Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting.
However, this statement is weakened by the admission that outside facilitators are to tackle several, unidentified issues.
It is understood these include Vavi having talked to non-governmental organisations like Corruption Watch, Section27 and Equal Education, which successfully sued the Basic Education department over the Limpopo textbook delivery failure, mud schools and Eastern Cape teacher numbers. As political newcomer Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang seems to also be talking to such groups, the argument has been made that Vavi was working with Ramphele.
Certainly, if this is the logic presented in the so-called robust CEC debates go, Cosatu is in trouble.
And there are also troubling questions over the federation’s governance.
The resolution to sell its old head office for R10 million was taken on August 15, 2011 – and reflected in the 2011 financial statements in the treasurer-general report tabled at last year’s congress – so why did claims around the sale only arise now? As the CEC is responsible for Cosatu’s financial statements, why did no one query this?
On other fronts, the labour federation has publicly admitted its challenges: its goal of 4 million members by 2015 is far off; key sectors such as agriculture and retail, where casual work dominates, remain unorganised, and the social distance between workers and union leaders was brought into stark relief during last year’s wildcat strikes for a R12 500 monthly wage.
Corruption in Cosatu’s ranks is also acknowledged: 40 percent of members in management say there’s corruption and 15 percent say they’ve witnessed it, with slightly lower percentages among members in labour ranks, according to the 2012 workers’ survey. Bribery by management tops the list.
For those wanting to make political hay ahead of 2014, all of this is a god send – as it is for those looking to ensure a generally more compliant labour federation. Vavi says he’ll depart from office if allegations are proven against him to protect his and Cosatu’s integrity.
But whether or not Vavi goes, the crux is whether Cosatu can settle its internal tensions.
Unless it does, millions of South African workers – those who joined unions seeking better wage deals and decent work and those who remain unorganised – stand to remain the biggest losers in what is already one of the world’s most unequal countries.