When the split hits the fan: Vavi’s future at a crossroads by Stephen Grootes
The expulsion of metalworkers’ union NUMSA is a seismic event. It will eventually rock the foundations of our politics and will probably become the split of COSATU. As predictable and well-signposted as Friday night’s decision was, the shockwaves are still reverberating. One person whose future is now at a crossroads is obviously Zwelinzima Vavi. As General Secretary of COSATU, he appears to have sided with the union that was expelled, and Numsa’s prediction that he could be next is probably accurate. But he also has a choice to make himself. Actually, there are some long-term opportunities here for a man who occupies a unique place in our politics.
Many years ago, when Mbeki was in his prime, ARVs were a distant hope and Quiet Diplomacy was at the height of its failure, a cynical colleague spent an unhappy two weeks chasing a big public-sector strike, with daily hot protests in different parts of Gauteng. Every day brought with it threats of being hit by rubber bullets, being chased by police, or being targeted by strikers. At the end, my colleague simply said: “To succeed, this country needs a tall, strong, honest man from the Eastern Cape to tell someone like Mbeki where to get off. One day we’re going to thank God for Zwelinzima Vavi.”
That comment remained with me, and recently I’ve been thinking about it all the more.
The choice Vavi makes about his future now is probably going to determine the course of the rest of his life and, more importantly for the rest of us, his place in history (in the e-books of the future). His choice will also be indicative of whether Numsa’s chosen path is more about fighting for workers or going into politics. Is this latest development more about leaving COSATU, or about starting a new political party? And for Vavi, is it more about leaving COSATU, or more about leaving the ANC?
So far, the mounting evidence suggests that it is more about leaving the ANC. This points to a situation in which Vavi would surely be the frontrunner for a leadership position in the new ‘United Front’. This, in turn, makes it more likely that he would leave Cosatu House now and go with Numsa.
In the time period around Polokwane, the then-Political Editor of Business Day, Karima Brown, would ask Vavi – in his capacity as General Secretary – the same question at almost every press conference. When COSATU made requests or demands of the ANC in the policy sphere, Brown would ask, repeatedly, what he would do if they did not do as requested. It took me some time to realise the point of the question: to illustrate that COSATU at the time was powerless. It seemed unable to drive the ANC to change its Aids policies under Thabo Mbeki; it seemed unable to get the ANC under Jacob Zuma to change its economic policies. Instead, its leaders would become ANC MPs, and then vote for measures COSATU had opposed – as occurred when Ebrahim Patel presumably followed the ANC whip and voted for the disguised Youth Wage Subsidy when it came to Parliament.
To these pressing questions, Vavi is now formulating an answer. Which is surely that if the ANC is not going to do what he and (some) other COSATU members want it to do, they’re going to leave COSATU.
Public pronouncements made by Vavi before tensions within COSATU started rising illustrate his best-known phrase: a ringing criticism of the “political hyenas”. It was something he became known for – a critique of people within the ANC. While arguably some of those people have left the party (and formed the Economic Freedom Fighters) surely many of them remain. One can imagine what he really thinks of Nkandla, for example, and what he would say, should he have the full freedom to say it.
Recently, he himself appeared to hint that he would go with Numsa. Just over two weeks ago he was asked on the Midday Report whether he would leave COSATU and follow Numsa, should they be expelled. There was a pause of about seven seconds before he answered, “It’s very difficult to say that.” On Saturday morning, as Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim was leaving Cosatu House for probably the last time, he appeared to hint that Vavi would follow them.
At the same time, for the new workers’ party, surely there is no better candidate to lead it than Vavi. He is known to be a champion of workers, has travelled the country speaking to communities, is not seen as corrupt (one misuse of office furniture aside) and, crucially, has massive name recognition. (Everyone in the country knows who Vavi is.) And, of course, he comes from within the ANC-led alliance in his own way, and thus can’t be accused of acting for some outside interest. These are huge political assets.
This means that even if he didn’t want to the figurehead of some new political organisation, those involved - Numsa in the main - are likely to ask him to do the job. They could well appeal to his sense of duty. As someone who has been intimately part of this process, who has said many times he wants what’s best for the country, they could claim he has to come with them.
And then there is the simple cost-benefit analysis for Vavi himself. What is to be gained by staying on within COSATU? It is clear that the majority of the union leaders still there want him out. Should there be a vote on his future, it seems likely that the numbers would correlate almost exactly with those on the decision to expel Numsa. And while he may be still somehow be tempted to wait until a Special Congress or COSATU’s Central Committee (the federation’s biggest gathering of members between congresses), without Numsa’s members in the frame, his position is surely much weaker. The same applies if he decides to take the noble route and stay within COSATU to fight for the organisation’s soul. The numbers are simply against him, and that soul is not going to a socialist heaven any time soon.
So certainly, for Vavi himself, he will have a much bigger political impact, be able to say the things he wants to say, and be with people he wants to be with, if he goes with Numsa. To stay within any alliance body at the moment is to simply invite a fight with Zuma’s proxies in different ways, shapes, and means. And we know that anyone picking a fight with Zuma’s proxies at the moment loses. Just look at Parliament’s Communications Committee’s bust-up with SABC's Zandile Tshabalala, or the former SAA board vs Dudu Myeni.
This means that in the end, Vavi will have to go. It’s just a matter of how he goes. And when. But in the end, go he must. Which means 2019 could well feature posters campaigning for Vavi for president. To compete, of course, with those featuring a beaming Cyril Ramaphosa. DM
Photo: Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is seen at the SA State and Allied Workers' Union congress in Ekurhuleni in the east of Johannesburg, Thursday, 30 May 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA