Zwelinzima Vavi. File picture: Neil Baynes

A split in the 2.4 million strong Cosatu now appears inevitable after nine unions supporting suspended general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi on Saturday vowed to mount a “massive mobilisation” campaign to have him returned to the reins of the federation.

Vavi was suspended last year following revelations of an improper sexual relationship with a junior staffer. He also stands accused of a raft of allegations relating to the sale of Cosatu’s old headquarters and the purchase of its new building.

In a statement, the unions accused audit firm SizweNtsalubaGobodo and the Cosatu leadership, whom they referred to as “the current leadership faction”, of leading a witch-hunt against Vavi and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), Cosatu’s largest affiliate. Numsa supports Vavi and has decided to withhold electoral and financial support to the ANC in the upcoming general elections for the first time since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy.

Numsa’s decision has ripped open the chasm in the federation between the nine unions and others, led mainly by public sector unions, who would like to keep faith with the ruling party.

The Numsa-led nine - which includes the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, the SA Municipal Workers’ Union, the Communication Workers’ Union and the Democratic Nurses Union of SA - want to see Cosatu take a more militant stance against some ANC and government policies. They blame the ruling party for the falling economic and political fortunes of workers and the poor, which has led to a wave of violent community protests against corruption and poor service delivery across the country.

The rebel unions’ hardline statement signals that both sides in the Cosatu divide now accept that a formal split in the federation can no longer be avoided. Should a split happen barely three months before the watershed May 7 poll, it would be a major headache for the ruling party, which has relied on a united Cosatu and tripartite alliance to deliver landslide victories in all four previous general elections.

The ANC is already under pressure as its urban working class constituency is increasingly restless at the slow pace of socio-economic change. Senior ANC leaders have scrambled but so far failed to keep a lid on the tensions in Cosatu until after elections.

For Cosatu the simmering tensions have already disrupted the federation’s ambitious campaign to fight back against the increased use of labour brokers among employers, the state’s recently promulgated youth wage subsidy, and e-tolls among others.

A messy split will all but collapse this programme, leaving millions of workers exposed and directionless.

The Numsa nine repeated their call for a special congress to resolve the impasse.

So far Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini has stymied their attempts to convene the meeting.

“We are more than ever convinced that a special national congress is the only way to resolve the current impasse,” they said.

The nine have openly said they would use a special congress to elect a new leadership, returning Vavi and ousting Dlamini.

In their statement, the rebel group said they would support Vavi when he takes the federation to court next month to challenge the legality of his suspension.

Their mobilisation campaign in favour of Vavi could be reminiscent of the support rallied by President Jacob Zuma’s supporters during his rape and corruption trials after he was sacked in 2005. He was acquitted of rape.

Zuma’s court appearances helped him project mass support, which was ultimately important for his election to the ANC presidency in 2007.

Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven said the federation’s bosses had seen the statement and would respond later if necessary.

- Sunday Independent