Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi at a media briefing at Cosatu House in Braamfontein on Thursday. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

THE Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) — the labour federation that plays a defining role in our politics and economy — spent last week in discussion over the state of its organisation and its bargaining strategies.

But the bigger question on the minds of many was not whether a campaign for a minimum wage would be endorsed (which it was), but rather what events might have said about the fate of its outspoken general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. For the past two weeks, Vavi’s future has been in the balance following allegations of corruption levelled against him in a central executive committee meeting by leaders of many of Cosatu’s biggest affiliates.

The interest in Vavi goes beyond the interest outsiders have in Cosatu itself. While this will irk unionists who don’t like to think any individual is bigger than the organisation, the truth is that the role Vavi has played — as counter to the all-embracing power of the African National Congress (ANC) — matters more to political and economic stakeholders than the resolutions the federation might take on wage policy.

In the past two weeks, members of civil society organisation, analysts working for international banks, risk assessment agencies and foreign embassies have made earnest inquiries about Vavi’s future. Many left-oriented civil society bodies have relied on their links with Cosatu, through Vavi, to give them greater relevance. But to market watchers in the financial sector, Cosatu’s economic policies are anathema. Nonetheless, his bloody removal from the political scene would make them equally anxious.

In his 14 years as head of Cosatu, Vavi has gone where no other leader of the alliance has dared: his graphic characterisation of some in the ANC as hyenas feeding on the state and his condemnation of ministerial profligacy and corruption at times have been stronger than the official political opposition.

Vavi’s future, however, was not on the conference agenda. The only visible sign of the internal strife was the mournful song delegates sang as Vavi took to the podium on the first day, indicating that all was not well in the federation. It was a song Cosatu used to sing for President Jacob Zuma in his time of difficulties with the law: "Vavi’s heart is holy; take me by the hand so I don’t fall; I will seek shelter in it." But the mood was subdued and sombre and not everyone rose to join in.

It was clear that Cosatu, which has weathered all manner of ideological and political divisions in its 27 years, now had a house more seriously divided than ever before.

At the root of this division is disagreement over Cosatu’s stance towards the Zuma administration. Leading up to the ANC’s Mangaung conference in December, there were heated debates whether Cosatu would support Zuma for another term. In the end, Vavi, who had reconsidered his support for Zuma after what he felt was Zuma’s failure to pursue a radical agenda, lost this debate. He was forced — in the interests of keeping Cosatu united — to acquiesce as the federation again gave Zuma its support.

But while Cosatu ostensibly retained its unity by backing Zuma, some of its top leaders — such as Vavi and National Union of Metalworkers of SA general secretary Irvin Jim — moved further away from the ANC, while others moved closer. Some of Cosatu’s most influential leaders from its biggest affiliates — the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) president Senzeni Zokwana, National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union general secretary Fikile Majola and Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini, who also happen to be central committee members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) — stood for election to the ANC’s national executive committee and now serve in its top leadership structure.

It is these three, plus others from the NUM, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union and the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, who form the core of Vavi’s challengers.

The objective is to get him to step down in response to insinuations of corruption and criticism of his leadership. But how possible will it be for them to make this happen?

Cosatu’s central executive committee is an immensely powerful body. On it sit the national office bearers, provincial chairs and secretaries and representatives of all 20 affiliates. The committee has the power to remove a national officer bearer should there be grounds to do so.

Do such grounds exist in Vavi’s case?

One of the most distasteful dimensions of Cosatu’s internal fight has been the partial role played by several journalists, who have published information from parties to the conflict designed to smear Vavi. For example, allegations have appeared in the press to the effect that Vavi sold Cosatu’s former headquarters for R10m less than the market price. But such a direct allegation has not been made in a Cosatu meeting.

What has happened in Cosatu meetings is the articulation of innuendo and doubt, without substantiation. There is therefore no knowing whether the claim has any veracity. As Cosatu’s investment arm, Kopano Ke Matla, managed the sale, and as Vavi knows his survival depends on unimpeachable behaviour, the claims don’t easily ring true.

Last week, Cosatu’s top leadership resolved a way to deal with these and other accusations. A commission of three will be established to which individuals with criticisms and allegations of any sort will be asked to give evidence. Led by lawyer Charles Nupen, respected trade unionist Petrus Mashishi and an accountant they will appoint, the commission will look into the matters that have been raised under four themes: political issues; ideological issues; administrative matters and financial matters.

The administrative and financial matters will be relatively easy to deal with: there will either be evidence against Vavi or there won’t. But the politics is a grey area — the political and ideological issues will inevitably revolve around the public stance Vavi has taken on a range of matters. There is a feeling among the pro-Zuma group in Cosatu that Vavi has spiced up and exaggerated Cosatu’s political positions. This, some say, has resulted in him deviating politically and ideologically from its agreed positions.

Here, the commissioners will need wisdom. Both sides believe passionately they are the guardians of Cosatu’s special brand of political unionism. While one side stresses the relevance of Cosatu’s political alliance with the multiclass ANC, the other stresses its independence as a working-class formation. These two dimensions are also the main contradiction in the tripartite alliance.

While political actors and observers have assumed that the break-up of the alliance would entail the SACP splitting off from the ANC to pursue a more radical agenda, the disintegration process is proving much more chaotic. With the ANC more united around Zuma after Mangaung, it is ironic that having pulled the SACP and some of Cosatu’s top leaders closer, it is now Cosatu that faces the threat of a split in its own ranks.

It is this political process that endangers Vavi’s political future — far more than unsubstantiated allegations of corruption.

• Paton is writer at large.