Zwelinzima Vavi
Zwelinzima Vavi
In the running: Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi says despite the fact that some of his comrades may be offended by his criticism of the government, he will continue to speak out.  	Pictures: Dumisani Dube
In the running: Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi says despite the fact that some of his comrades may be offended by his criticism of the government, he will continue to speak out. Pictures: Dumisani Dube

Marianne Merten

ZWELINZIMA Vavi says he’ll not keep quiet.

“I’m not going to stop speaking out,” says the Cosatu general secretary, proclaiming he has no regrets about speaking out in the past.

In the corridor of his 9th-floor office at Cosatu House hangs a Zapiro cartoon of the Cosatu boss blowing the “Vavizela” – on corruption by cabinet heavies. But he’s not insensitive to the possibility that some may take umbrage.

“When you have friends and alliances in government and everywhere in society, sometimes a genuine bashing of corruption can be interpreted as anti-this faction and pro-that faction, which is what I think I’m coming under pressure for,” he told The Sunday Independent in a wide-ranging interview this week.

“I lose some friends in the process. So, I know that people have been uncomfortable. I’m not unconcerned about that, because the best thing I want is to unite Cosatu to fight corruption. I don’t want to be isolated, so I may not be able to do that,” he said.

With Cosatu’s congress two weeks away, Vavi says the delegates will have to do some serious introspection.

Although the trade union federation is financially self-sufficient because of its members’ subscriptions, and membership has grown, there are organisational weaknesses and grey areas.

This goes beyond accusations that union leaders have become too distant from their members, as raised in the aftermath of the Marikana police killing of 34 striking miners.

Tenders have also become an issue in many unions, where shop stewards and other officials deal with contracts ranging from medical aid and provident funds to catering and face possible corruption. “We have battles around who must be the shop steward and we get divided… We have battles around those tender processes and we get divided. It’s a terribly complicated environment,” said Vavi, adding it was no longer a simple case of friends and enemies.

“If we don’t do an introspection at this congress and if we don’t have a serious look in the mirror, we will just haemorrhage through splits and members just feeling that there have to be new champions.”

Shop steward training has been neglected and Cosatu is not spending as much money as it did even 10 years ago, while the industrial relations environment has become more complicated and many shop stewards deal with former colleagues now sitting on the other side as human resource managers.

According to the organisational report to be tabled at the congress, recent statistics show Cosatu referred only 7 percent of the 34 000 cases that came before the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration. And management won 53 percent of those.

While Cosatu is rated best at fighting sexual discrimination against women and on the HIV/Aids front, 60 percent of members are dissatisfied with wage settlements. “That’s frightening. If we get rated at 40 percent at wages, don’t be surprised there is Marikana,” said Vavi.

It’s not all bad news.

Membership has grown to 2.2 million, shop steward councils are functioning, most members are engaged in one or another grassroots campaign and, at provincial level, Cosatu is stable.

It claims victory over this week’s key changes to the Protection of State Information Bill, which saw the dropping of three controversial clauses – that the bill trumps access to information legislation, the blanket ban on releasing information relating to any state security matter and powers of municipalities to classify information.

“We will say our unions are working hard, despite weaknesses,” says Vavi. “It’s better to be a member of a union in South Africa than not to be a member: the wages are better, the conditions are better, the job security is better… So we are going to say that we have done the best to organise to represent not only our own narrow interests, but also the interests of society.”

The March protests against e-tolls on Gauteng’s highways and labour broking, which saw hundreds of thousands of ordinary South Africans out on the streets, are a case in point. It was one of the most visibly and broadly supported social campaigns. But critics say the trade union federation’s response to, for example, the ongoing Limpopo textbook scandal, has been slow. And in the battle over the youth wage subsidy, the DA has painted Cosatu as the stumbling block to youth employment.

“The mindset change must be that we are prepared to accept weaknesses, and then to say there has to be a new way. If Cosatu comes out of this congress and it can’t better engage with the National Economic Development and Labour Council, with departments… then it is pretty useless. It becomes a pretty big-mouthed bulldog, which has no teeth, which cannot effect fundamental transformation of society,” says Vavi.

“That is the self-reflection we must do throughout the congress.”

The documents prepared for the congress are described as serious like never before, and have gone through a special political commission and special central committee adoption.

Vavi has thrown down the gauntlet to critics who want to see him out or weakened.

“I’m saying to everybody: if you are uncomfortable with a Cosatu that fights corruption, then stand and your name must be in the ballot box and let’s see what members will decide on. If you want a Cosatu which will not be critical of the government, that will transform its relationship [with the government] into a conveyer belt, a lapdog, then stand so we have a congress divided on that basis [not whispering campaigns]. If you win, good luck, that’s democracy.

“I’m not going to be sitting here and saying ‘I promise that never again will I raise the issue of paralysis in the liberation movement because that is costing me votes…’ Sorry, I’m not going to do that.”

Having announced he would not stand in 2012 – effectively ending a 12-year stint as general secretary – Vavi then reversed his decision, reportedly following requests. But there are more important things than another term.

“I never want to find myself in a situation where people say: ‘You see that man used to be Zwelinzima Vavi. He’s now driving a nice Porsche, and he’s staying in the best suburb with a triple-storey house costing R14 million, but he is no longer Zwelinzima Vavi…’ I don’t want that to happen to me.”