Cape Town -
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has pledged to work for the labour federation’s unity - and to do everything to avoid a split in the 19 trade union affiliates.
“My role is to ensure we pick up the pieces… that have fallen all over. Ensure that we can be brought together behind a programme (so that) Cosatu reclaims its position in society as the voice of the working people,” Vavi told about 500 shop stewards at the Western Cape Cosatu head office in Cape Town on Tuesday night.
“Without the unity of workers, everything else becomes impossible. Without the numbers united behind a principled federation, all is lost.”
But the general secretary used his usual upfront style to carefully walk a fine political line in his first public address since his reinstatement at what was clearly an election meeting with ANC and SACP speakers.
Cosatu is backing the ANC in the coming elections and, as the federation’s general secretary, he can’t step out of line. But Vavi’s vocal supporters - the metalworkers’ union Numsa, among others - decided not to endorse the ruling party at its special national congress in December.
Addressing this issue head-on, the outspoken Vavi dismissed speculation that he owed Numsa for its support.
“It is wrong to say the resolutions of Numsa must bind Vavi… and Numsa is not (so) arrogant to tell me I must abandon Cosatu. It doesn’t work like that,” Vavi told the cheering crowd.
“Unity is the only way. There is no second way. And let us not be dishonest…”
Whatever Numsa’s resolutions, it was now up to the affiliate to persuade the federation of its views, he said, adding Cosatu needed to get to a space where such conversations were possible.
His comments come as a draft Numsa central committee report, up for discussion the week after the May 7 elections, indicates two options for Cosatu’s largest affiliate, with more than 340 000 members, if there are moves to expel it: take the fight to stay within Cosatu to the courts, or consider breaking away.
On Tuesday night, Vavi remained defiant about his own words and actions: everything he had said on public platforms, before and during his eight-month suspension, stood because statements did not arise from his own decisions, but from Cosatu resolutions.
“Fighting against corruption is not a Vavi resolution, it is a Cosatu (decision)… ” he said, adding this included criticism of the multimillion-rand taxpayer-funded security upgrades at President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead.
“The issue of fighting e-tolls must not be personalised. It is a Cosatu decision. Fighting e-tolls is fighting against the privatisation of the most basic services… It has nothing to do with one person.”
The same applied to Cosatu’s call for a total ban on labour brokers, a call it failed to carry in recently passed legislation that merely regulates labour brokers and limits short-term employment contracts to three months.
While Cosatu would work with the ANC and SACP for a radical economic transformation to realise workers’ rights and interests, including proper housing, safe public transport and decent work, Vavi said, Cosatu could not be a “conveyor belt for anyone”, nor could it be transformed into a sweetheart federation.
Vavi’s plea and argument for unity within Cosatu on Tuesday night echoed his statements hours ahead of his return to work at the Joburg national head office, Cosatu House.
He returned earlier this month after the Johannesburg High Court ruled that his suspension in August was unlawful and invalid.
A few days later, a special Cosatu central executive committee, the highest decision-making structure between national congresses, agreed to a month-long “ceasefire” for an ANC-led mediation effort to resolve tensions in the 2.2 million-strong labour federation.
Thus decisions on Vavi’s possible renewed suspension, and the expulsion or suspension of Numsa over its December resolutions, were delayed until after the May 7 elections.
Shouts of “Vavi! Vavi! Vavi!” erupted as he walked into the hall some time into Human Settlements Minister Connie September’s speech on housing delivery. Afterwards, shop stewards queued to have photos taken with him, leaving standing not only September, but also other senior provincial political leaders.