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It seems madness to break up the whole federation for a desire to destroy Zwelinzima Vavi, says Makhudu Sefara.
Johannesburg - Any discussion about sex will come with the danger of generating a lot of meaningless heat, and, in the excitement, make us lose sight of what matters.
And, for embattled Cosatu boss Zwelinzima Vavi, it has been a rather slow and painful demise occasioned by what he terms a “brief” sexual encounter in the office. In any case, why should we be interested in his brief encounter, as if it negates anything. So this column is decidedly without the titillating bits about what happened in that office.
It is, rather, about the political storm it has unleashed, what it might mean for our democracy and why the ANC should not sit on the fence and, wrongly, believe this is an internal Cosatu matter. For, in truth, what is at stake could impact the ruling party in a significant way.
Cosatu’s biggest union – the National Union of Metalworkers of SA – has, following a special central committee meeting this week, decided to call a special national conference in December. This meeting will take place about four or five months ahead of the country’s general election.
The likable president of Numsa, Cedric Gina, supported by his vocal general secretary Irvin Jim and others, made some rather startling yet crucial comments this week, signalling the need for Cosatu to handle Vavi with care.
What got my attention was the fact that Cosatu’s biggest union has lost confidence in the federation’s president, S’dumo Dlamini; that there was a rupture not of the tripartite alliance but within Cosatu; and that Numsa was not prepared to be part of a Cosatu that is reduced to a labour desk serving capitalists’ interests.
These “real” leftists are unhinged by the gaudy manifestation of capitalism, symbolised, in part, by National Union of Mineworkers boss who earns R1.6 million when rock drill operators break their backs for peanuts. They think of the government – and the alliance – as a lair of capitalist gnomes which, necessarily, is anathema to our young democracy. Socialism, for them, is the Holy Grail of workers’ rights.
The framing of the rupture within Cosatu by Numsa is ideological. This is important because it appears meant to assuage criticism that those who abandon the alliance do so for ephemeral reasons, but have no ideological differences with the ruling party.
Numsa is strong in a number of areas, but particularly in the Eastern Cape, where, importantly, the SA Democratic Teachers Union expressed its unwavering support for Vavi. We also know that Sadtu boss Thobile Ntola was hastily suspended for giving Vavi a platform to address members of Sadtu, and thus Cosatu members, at a conference in the Eastern Cape.
Let us join the dots.
Vavi’s supporters have realised that there is a great chance that he will be shown the door. His enemies have been girding for a battle for a while. Their problem is that the same people who tried to get rid of Vavi through the sale of the Cosatu offices saga are behind efforts to charge him for bringing Cosatu into disrepute.
Their diagnosis is that this is a smokescreen because Vavi’s nemesis feel aggrieved that Vavi articulates positions they would rather he does not on e-tolls, labour broking, and structural problems with the economy, and does not support President Jacob Zuma fully. But, crucially, they feel Vavi could not fully be relied upon to throw Cosatu’s machinery behind Zuma in the 2014 general election and, therefore, he must make way now.
If Vavi is thrown out, the ANC must worry about the Numsa special national conference set for December. Numsa does not need Cosatu any more than Cosatu needs it. And if Numsa breaks away, which is very likely if Vavi is sent to the political scrapheap, it could become the seed used to pursue a leftist, workerist agenda that Gina and Jim say is exactly what got Vavi into trouble in the first place.
If Sadtu’s Ntola is thrown out for allowing his boss (Vavi) to address his members, he too becomes the quintessential victim of bullies that tripartite members can’t get enough of.
With Sadtu in the Eastern Cape “fully behind Vavi”, this possibly could become the fountainhead from which the ANC’s toughest challenge in next year’s elections might arise. Forget Agang and the EFF. The ANC’s biggest task right now must be to make sure that Cosatu does not split. The seeds are there for all to see. Vavi’s scandal is being politically mismanaged. Cosatu’s Dlamini and his troopers are focused on getting Cosatu for themselves and disregarding what this could do to the alliance. The heat from the sex has obscured what is important.
What is required is nimble footwork by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, about whom Gina had good things to say this week. The inconvenience of having a restless Vavi within Cosatu does not warrant a full-on rupture. What makes this particularly risky – and a bit exciting for opposition voters – is that it is not just Numsa that supports Vavi.
All ANC presidents have told us how paramount unity is for the alliance’s continued existence. But real ignorance – which is not just a state of being uninformed, but an unwillingness to learn – appears to be a major inhibition for those obsessed with the truculent battles raging in the union movement.
The point is not that Vavi must not be censured. Of course he should. But in doing so, Dlamini and his troopers appear over-excited by the prospect of removing the thorn but, in the process, losing sight of what matters.
It seems madness to break up the whole federation for a desire to destroy Vavi. But then again, as Friedrich Nietzsche once observed, “in individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule”.
Cosatu leaders should have known that, having avoided an electoral contest that could have resolved what they now hope Vavi’s zip offers as a solution, they will need skilful negotiation and guile to either outwit each other or nurse the relationship till elections without causing a split.
By all means, censure Vavi because it is the right thing to do. That is what workers would expect. His briefie is not worth splitting the whole federation.
* Makhudu Sefara is the editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak