Zwelinzima Vavi
Zwelinzima Vavi

COSATU boss Zwelinzima Vavi says the door is not closed for a discussion on the ANC’s Mangaung leadership contest – but the trade union federation will not take a stand dictated by one faction or another.

However, it’s not a given that Cosatu, whose 2.2 million members have been feeling the heat of the unofficial ANC succession battle, will make a pronouncement when it holds its national congress later this month. There would have to be a solid reason for the trade union federation to pronounce before the ANC’s official opening of nominations in October.

“There must be a discussion. Any resolution must not be an emotional decision, or responding to a dirty political campaign. It must be a carefully thought-out political strategy,” said Vavi in an interview with Independent Newspapers this week.

“If we don’t do that assessment and take a very carefully considered position politically, then we will divide the federation in no time and we will live to regret that we were too much in a hurry to go into any direction.”

On previous occasions Vavi, and other union leaders, have said the trade unions and their federation had become contested terrain with the ruling party’s national elective conference just months away.

Before the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference, Cosatu took the unprecedented step of announcing its leadership preferences, including Jacob Zuma for president. A year later, following a tripartite alliance summit, it decided it would not do so again.

The turbulent political times ahead of that conference, among others, saw the massive mobilisation of support at Zuma’s various court appearances – he was acquitted of rape in 2006, while corruption and fraud charges were withdrawn on a technicality only in April 2009.

At the time, Cosatu concluded its alliance with the ANC and SACP would collapse given the political direction under the administration of then-president Thabo Mbeki.

Among the criteria the trade union federation often cites for its support for Zuma were economic policies that favoured narrow black economic empowerment rather than all South Africans and efforts to restructure and centralise power within the ANC through, for example, the announcement of premiers and mayors from Luthuli House, rather than provinces and regions.

While Vavi is less vocal than SACP boss Blade Nzimande on what has been achieved since 2007, he also believes the push before Polokwane has paid off. Decent work has taken centre-stage, there has been the recognition that SA’s economic problems are structural and must be addressed at that level and the focus of macro-economic policies must be on eradicating poverty.

“The debate we should have at the congress is: ‘Have things rolled back to the pre-2007 period?’ and ‘What is the basis for making whatever conclusion?’ meaning that if we are going to review the decision not to interfere, it will have to be a political decision. It can’t be because of that faction and that faction. It must be because, politically, our assessment is that things are sliding back. And that is the discussion we will have at the congress…”

While Cosatu leaders say the union federation is united, that doesn’t mean it, and individual leaders, are not the target of whispering campaigns identifying some union leaders with the pro-Zuma bloc and others with the call for change.

“There’s no doubt some of the divisions, including to this congress, are caused by some people who feel that, for example, I have been too hard on corruption, on mediocrity, on divisions… We’ll always have those dynamics in a movement that is in an alliance with the ruling party. It’s part of the price you pay. You gain so much, but are also going to be aware of the mosquitoes that come with the open window.”

And that means politics rather than collective bargaining often dominate Cosatu discussions.

“We can’t move on in this way. We must remind ourselves [of] what the core mandate of the federation and unions is – three issues: improved wages, improved conditions of employment [using the skills legislation, employment equity and the like], job security,” Vavi said.

But the political report to be presented to its congress talks of Cosatu doing its bit to prevent SA hitting the low road – of divisions, slate politics of groups of election candidates and the alienation of those who have lost out in leadership votes. Instead, it wants unity on critical issues and an end to corruption so that everyone pulls in the same direction. – Marianne Merten