Newsmaker – Zwelinzima Vavi: More drama than a night at the theatre

2013-06-02 14:00

Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi lives to fight another day. He shares what keeps him grounded.

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has survived what has been billed as the most difficult week of his political life in the trade union federation.

The federation’s central executive committee (CEC) this week appointed a firm of auditors to probe allegations of irregularities in the sale of the old Cosatu building and the purchase of the new headquarters in Braamfontein.

Vavi’s detractors have accused him of benefiting from the transaction, but so far no concrete evidence has emerged.

Some people think the 50-year-old unionist and former mine worker might run out of luck after next year’s general elections.

They argue his popularity with ordinary South Africans will then no longer be needed to garner electoral support for the ANC.

But Vavi is not a man to entertain speculation about his future. “All I know is that the leadership in the central executive committee has said this particular phase must pass.”

In the past few weeks, the fight for control of the general secretary’s office on the ninth floor of Cosatu House has generated more drama than The Joburg Theatre over which it towers.

It has been cloak-and-dagger stuff – the sort that led Vavi’s opposite number in the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, to warn that Cosatu might not last another year if its leaders continue tearing each other apart.

But when politics gets too tense for Vavi, he seeks refuge in family life.

The Kaizer Chiefs and Manchester United fan is the father of four-month-old twins, Emihle and Lubabalo. There are four other children from the previous marriages of himself and his wife, Noluthando.

He avoids taking work home so that he can give his family his undivided attention.

“Occupying a job like this has consequences. One of those is that you are never there for your kids. You create and manufacture fault lines in society when kids feel unloved and uncared for. They go in search of love outside home.

“I know that, so I try to balance it all the time. It’s not easy, but I do that. The reason I cannot work thoroughly is that when I am at home I have to find space for the kids. If you don’t give them that space even when you are present, you are creating a revolt at home.”

He’s enjoying having young children at his age, saying he has more experience now – his oldest daughter is 25. Now he gets to “play like a baby” with his twins and goes to bed tired as a result.

“Why I am excited and not stressed about having a big family is because I come from a big family. From there you have some things that are part of you. I can’t eat alone. I need company. That’s when I eat better.”

He is the 10th of 12 children, the son of a miner. His parents did not keep records of all their children’s birth dates.

But for the first time, this year Vavi has decided to celebrate his official birthday, on December 20, because his wife insists that birthdays should be celebrated. It will be at their northern Johannesburg home.

A prolific Twitter user with more than 81 000 followers, Vavi says social media has taught him not to have a “thin skin”.

He has to explain his federation’s policy positions to people of all political persuasions and backgrounds.

“It gives you so much experience. You grow on Twitter.”

A source in Cosatu says Vavi’s active use of the social network has not endeared him to some of his comrades in the federation.

They feel that he is cosying up to rival politicians like DA leader Helen Zille by debating labour issues with her on Twitter.

But Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini denied rumours that the leadership had tried to bar Vavi from tweeting.

Some of the administrative and ideological issues that lawyer Charles Nupen and veteran unionist Petrus Mashishi are currently mediating between warring Cosatu factions stem partly from what Vavi’s detractors term his “oppositionist stance”, says the source.

He is well known for his vocal opposition to government’s e-tolling system and is a booming voice in the fight against corruption.

“Some CEC members say his posture is creating enmity between the ANC and workers,” says the source. Vavi is clear about what changes he’d like to see to make South Africa’s democracy more robust.

Cosatu wants a mixed electoral system, he explains, that includes both proportional representation and constituency-based representation.

The current model, which makes MPs accountable to party bosses, encourages sycophancy and bootlicking, he says.

He’s hungry for more “skirmishes” between the executive and the legislature in Parliament.

“We need to see ministers coming back crying if they have done something wrong and we need Parliament impeaching them,” he believes.

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