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

AND so it begins. Before the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) Mangaung conference last year, observers of alliance politics wondered how President Jacob Zuma would manage to simultaneously keep the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) on his side in next year’s election and make the hard economic policy decisions that are essential if South Africa is to arrest its backward slide.

Now we may have the answer: wait until after the election of ANC office bearers for a new five-year term and the second presidential term is in the bag, then get rid of those in Cosatu who might seek to hold Mr Zuma to his private promises, resist policy decisions the unions oppose, or pursue the "prime minister" option that was raised before Mangaung as a way to placate some of Mr Zuma’s milder critics.

It is hard to see Thursday’s announcement by Cosatu that it will probe "insinuations" of financial impropriety involving its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, and the acquisition of the federation’s new headquarters, as well as the sale of the old building, in any other way. It is common cause that Mr Vavi is no fan of Mr Zuma, and that he was on the losing side when some affiliates campaigned against a second term at Cosatu’s own conference held shortly before Mangaung. Mr Vavi had little choice but to go with the flow after the conference endorsed Mr Zuma, but the knives were out.

It is, of course, possible that Mr Vavi has done wrong, and that Cosatu’s investigation will unearth sufficient evidence to justify something more than insinuations. But the odds are against it, given his track record as a principled leader, who has often gone out on a limb to expose corruption. This newspaper has often disagreed with Mr Vavi’s views but, unlike many ANC leaders, has never had cause to question his ethical standards.

It is far more likely that Mr Vavi is being subjected to trial by innuendo and that nothing material will come of the probe. Meanwhile, he will be sidelined within Cosatu and be made persona non grata in the alliance until he has either been neutralised as a political threat or resigns his position.

That is, after all, a tried and tested strategy for getting rid of troublesome opponents in alliance politics. Former Cosatu president Willie Madisha, who made the mistake of opposing Mr Zuma’s first ANC presidential bid in 2007, found himself expelled from the organisation a year later after being accused of stealing a large cash donation apparently made to the South African Communist Party by businessman Charles Modise.

The legal process was never followed, no compelling evidence against Mr Madisha was ever produced, and what actually happened to the money remains a mystery. But Mr Madisha remains in the political wilderness, having sought refuge in the Congress of the People.

Will Mr Vavi suffer the same fate? Possibly, but this is not a strategy that can be used too often without people starting to question it. And there are a number of differences between Mr Vavi’s situation and Mr Madisha’s. The latter was almost a lone voice supporting Thabo Mbeki in 2007, whereas Mr Vavi retains a solid support base in Cosatu and the ANC. The repercussions from shafting him without just cause could be serious for both organisations. Cosatu is already divided along pro-and anti-Zuma lines, with prominent affiliates such as the National Union of Mineworkers and National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa competing vigorously on the shop floor and in the political arena.

In addition, the recent launch of Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang opposition "platform" provides Mr Vavi with a credible alternative to the ruling alliance should his position with Cosatu be made untenable. Driving a leader such as Mr Vavi, who has both an existing constituency and the potential to appeal to voters across political, class and racial lines, into the arms of the opposition a matter of months before a national election could prove to be a fatal error.