Cosatu's suspended secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi. File photo: Etienne Creux

Johannesburg - When news broke in 1998 that then-American president Bill Clinton had a steamy affair with an intern at the White House, there was trouble.

Clinton’s sleazy relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which partly led to impeachment processes against him, was one of the most widely followed political sex scandals of the 1990s. More recently, a sex scandal torpedoed the career of then-International Monetary Fund (IMF) boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Strauss-Kahn was in the running to become a French presidential candidate when news broke that he had tried to force himself on a hotel staff member in New York in 2011.

His image suffered serious damage, with the allegations forcing him to step down as IMF chief and bursting his presidential dreams.

Closer to home, President Jacob Zuma was accused of rape and conceded during his trial in 2005 that he’d had sex with a woman without a condom. Zuma was acquitted on a rape charge – but not of the fact that he had cheated on his wives.

He refused to quit his political career in the wake of the sex scandal. Instead, Zuma, unlike Strauss-Kahn, realised his dream of becoming the president of South Africa in 2009.

The rape case against him – regardless of the cheating – would be regarded as part of a political conspiracy to destroy his career.

Last year, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula had to apologise to his wife after the lid was lifted on his sexual relationship with a Johannesburg model.

The names of Strauss-Kahn, Clinton and Mbalula come to mind when reflecting on the quagmire Cosatu boss Zwelinzima Vavi finds himself in in the wake of his sex scandal last weekend – probably the most prominent after Zuma’s.

Like Mbalula and Clinton, Vavi apologised for his indiscretion and had the support of not only his family, but also of some prominent leaders in Cosatu.

Following the withdrawal of the rape grievance against Vavi early this week, his supporters have categorised the exposure of his sexual misdemeanour as part of a political conspiracy – as was the situation in Zuma and Strauss-Kahn’s cases, among others.

Vavi, unlike Strauss-Kahn, has refused to resign, choosing to apologise to the public and his family.

But is Vavi’s sex scandal going to be the beginning of the end of his political career? Or, will Vavi, as in the past, bounce back?

Even if he escapes this scandal, what does it mean for his power and influence in Cosatu structures?

The dropping of internal rape charges against Vavi could be the beginning of the end of his career or of Cosatu as we have come to know it. The battle for the soul of the federation has taken a nasty turn, as fear, loathing, sex, extortion, backstabbing and allegations of corruption have rocked Cosatu House in the past few months.

Before he was hit by the sexual misconduct grievance, Vavi was being investigated for alleged corruption and political disloyalty. Things took a turn for the worse this week, rendering Cosatu House a house asunder.

Vavi’s accuser may have withdrawn the rape claims against him, but not before mentioning she was under pressure to bring him down. In the exchanges between her and Vavi, she speaks about “people” who have found out about the affair and are pushing her to expose it.

“I am having sleepless nights because of this. People wanting me to say that you hurt me, wanting information from me,” said one SMS.

“I am gonna explode, my marriage is over and those phone calls won’t stop, some even promising me money…”

In the context of Vavi’s battles in Cosatu, who could be the detractors who wanted his sexual relationship with his accuser to become a rape case that would bring him down?

The answer to this vexing question is not simple. Those who are prepared to lay down their lives for Vavi are charging that the exposure of the steamy affair and allegations of its being sexual abuse are part of a well-calculated plot to oust him.

They are avoiding interrogating why Vavi would abuse his power to sleep with a junior staffer. But the nuts and bolts of workplace power relations are not, on the face of it, at the heart of the war at Cosatu House.

The real fight – not disregarding the seriousness of sexual harassment – is for the control of the federation.

The rape allegations come in the context of a protracted battle between factions led by Vavi and Cosatu’s president, Sdumo Dlamini.

The tussle between the two Cosatu strongmen, which had been brewing in the run-up to the ANC conference last December, hit a tipping point in September during the federation’s conference.

Both sides had earmarked candidates to contest each other should a compromise not be reached. Due to the strength of the two factions and the debilitating effect the contest would have had on Cosatu, both sides retreated. But this has, to quote Cosatu’s biggest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), left the federation in a state of paralysis.

Numsa believes the rape charges against Vavi were politically motivated.

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim said this week that those who pursued Vavi’s infidelity further in the federation would be “isolated and defeated”.

But it was the ANC Women’s League that raised Jim’s ire. In its statement earlier in the week, the league insinuated that Vavi’s accuser had been pushed to drop the rape charges and denied a suitable platform to pursue the matter.

“Comrade Vavi has publicly been humiliated and acknowledged his personal failing, and apologised to all and sundry,” Jim said.

“The matter has been withdrawn before the federation. The matter of extortion is with the police. That is as far as it should go, in the federation. We will fail to read anything else other than cheap opportunism, or clear conspiracy, should anyone seek to further place comrade Vavi under duress over this matter, in the federation.”

Jim blasted the league, reminding it that the tripartite alliance had dealt before with “very grave rape allegations”.

The women’s league, the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu supported Zuma unconditionally during his rape trial.

At the time, Vavi was one of Zuma’s staunchest supporters. He was even hauled before the South African Human Rights Commission for declaring that he would “Shoot to Kill” for Zuma.

After coming under fire for his statements, Vavi said: “I was not educating that we should take up arms because we have exhausted peaceful attainment of our goals. I was merely stating a principle that comrades should be ready to defend one another and, when necessary, that may involve killing.”

In the wake of his own sex scandal, the question is: “Who will shoot to kill for Vavi? And will the shots save or help kill his political career?

Numsa has taken up arms for Vavi, vowing to crush those who are out for him and demanding a further probe into the infidelity. But his deputy, Dlamini, and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), as expected, did not come out in full support of Vavi.

Dlamini was quoted this week as saying the Vavi matter had damaged the standing of the organisation in society. “This saga has seriously damaged the reputation of the union and it will take us time to reconstruct Cosatu and move beyond this phase.”

NUM general secretary Frans Baleni, on the other hand, said a further investigation should be conducted on the circumstances surrounding Vavi’s office romance.

NUM and Numsa’s differences over the Vavi matter are but a proxy in a protracted squabble between the two unions.

The two biggest Cosatu affiliates are also embroiled in a turf war over members at Eskom, among other fights.

The nights of long knives, deep divisions, fights over membership, poor service to members, public spats and the sex scandal portray Cosatu as taking steps beyond being in a “Skorokoro” scenario, one of several against which its former leaders warned.

A “Skorokoro” – meaning a worn-out car – situation was painted by former Cosatu leaders, led by Connie September, in 1996, in trying to make sense of the future South Africa in which Cosatu would be waging struggles.

The September Commission warned against a “Skorokoro” scenario in which trade unions faced such problems as the splinter unions in the Rustenberg Platinum belt and increasing competition between affiliates for members.

“Cosatu is weakened by the many divisions and conflicts in society. The culture of self-enrichment and the growth of a black middle class could undermine the unions’ culture of solidarity,” the commission’s report stated.

As in the biblical tale of Samson and Delilah, Vavi’s enemies have cornered him and are trying publicly to humiliate him and gouge out his eyes.

But unlike Samson, Vavi hasn’t lost all support (hair) in the federation. Even if he falls, he certainly will not go down alone. Allegations of corruption in the affiliates’ investment arms abound.

Zwelinzima “Samson” Vavi will go down with the temple (Cosatu House). If he survives, what is certain is that Vavi will come out of this sex scandal a compromised and weaker leader, presiding over an increasingly collapsing Cosatu House.

But can Vavi, like Zuma, survive the storm? Or will he, like Strauss-Kahn, kiss his career goodbye?

Time will tell.

Sunday Independent