13 tough questions for Zwelinzima Vavi

2014-05-18 15:00

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ZwelinzimaVavi says Cosatu has become far too absorbed with ‘palace politics’ and leadership ­squabbles, taking its eye off the issues that really matter to its members. Author Ebrahim Harvey has some tough questions for the union federation’s general secretary 

You felt vindicated by the court victory, but factionalist divisions persisted in Cosatu thereafter and may in fact have hardened. Many still firmly believe you must face various charges, notwithstanding the court victory?...

This is because people are still locked into their trenches and that there is still much of ‘for and against’ in Cosatu. We are definitely not out of

the woods when it comes to these divisions and therefore we need urgently to rebuild unity and cohesion. But I believe that any reckless action to again suspend me for no good reason will again be challenged organisationally, politically and legally.

And that they still want to proceed with charges against you even after the court victory?

I don’t know if it will happen or not, but I think it is being held in abeyance because I was supposed to appear in a hearing on May 28, but that is the third day of our central executive committee meeting, to which I will be giving reports. So it is off, but we are also still waiting for the intervention of the ANC. But I do want a process so that I can be fully cleared. They have wrongly accused me of many things, like I have spent much money illegitimately, but I can easily disprove that.

You said these are trumped-up charges because of political divisions in Cosatu?...

There is no merit to the charges against me. I would never have faced such allegations in the past. [It is] all a smoke screen to address a political division in Cosatu. By removing me for eight months, we could not address what was in fact a political rupture in Cosatu, which is that the national democratic revolution is in dire straights and is not delivering on its core mandate, which was to deliver us not only from racism and political oppression, but economic exploitation too. This has not happened. We, in fact, seem to have fundamentally departed from that framework.

I am hoping the ANC intervention will help us deal with and resolve these serious problems.

Cosatu’s foundations were based on the unity in action of trade unions, but today it is a sad shadow of that glorious past, which made it once the most powerful trade union federation in Africa?...

There are many reasons for that, but one of the main reasons is that some have been lobbying for who will go to the national executive committee of the ANC and slowly such matters diverted our attention from our main purpose as a trade union federation: to unite the workingclass to fight for their rights and needs, to build strong worker control and leadership, spend more time on the education of our members, on wage negotiations, recruiting more members and gaining better control over our investment companies, and so on.

The point has never been that Cosatu must not be involved in politics – but not to the extent where we are preoccupied with it and forget about why workers joined us in the first place: to unite them to advance and defend their material interests such as wages, sick pay, maternity benefits, leave pay, provident and pension funds, and so on. These are the matters that must preoccupy us.

But is that not why it is most unfortunate that Cosatu is torn asunder at a time of a deep economic and social crisis when its unity was most important to enable it to deal with declining real income and attacks on living standards?

Yes, and we also need that unity to deal with a massive unemployment crisis in this country. Those are the issues we must focus on and be united around. Our politics must prioritise those issues, but some are saying by doing so we are being negative about what is a good story after 1994.

Is there not so much factionalist bad blood in Cosatu now that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to restore its former unity?

While I am not underestimating the seriousness of the divisions inside Cosatu, no problem is too big or insurmountable. We have to do all we can and spare no effort to prevent a split. You will not find a worker in Cosatu who does not want a living wage and who is not unhappy about labour brokers and e-tolls. Unfortunately, it is the palace politics of mainly leadership squabbles that was our focus.

However, there is a hard reality we cannot deny: the only way to reach out to all our members is through this very leadership. To try to ignore leaders and reach out directly to members, you are not going to go very far. That is why the coming central executive committee meeting is going to be very critical from this point of view.

The office bearers are now agreed: let us sideline the divisions and instead rebuild unity around those issues we know will unite us.

If we don’t come out from that meeting with an agreement that despite political divisions, which we must attend to at some stage, we must focus on these and the earlier issues I mentioned, then we are certainly going to be in bigger trouble.

Are you still willing and prepared to face any inquiry into the charges against you?

Yes, definitely, though I am certain that the charges are frivolous and a factionalist attempt to purge [me]. I do not want to send a signal to anyone that I am too big and powerful and above the organisation to face any charges.

It was reported that you were forced to campaign for the ANC in the elections, though you intimated that it was involved in attempts to unseat you. Is that true?

Many people don’t understand this. Some people thought I was a sellout, an opportunist and so on. But when you are the general secretary of an organisation, you own its good and bad decisions and you are obliged to implement all decisions made. Cosatu made a decision to support the ANC. How could I, on my own, go against that decision? But a very worrying thing, which I call the unintended consequence of the reinstatement, is that some people think I am the general secretary only of the nine affiliates who supported me!

You have not commented on Numsa’s decision not to support the ANC in the elections. Can you do so now, please?

I respect the right of Numsa to make whatever decisions they do. I do not have a right to condemn such a decision, even though I know it contradicts the Cosatu position to support the ANC, which still reigns supreme. It’s a tricky situation because they can still engage other affiliates about why they took such a decision. But I don’t think calling for their summary dismissal from Cosatu will be helpful. Cosatu is the sum of its affiliates. In fact, all Cosatu decisions start in one or other affiliate. That is exactly how Cosatu adopted the Freedom Charter, one affiliate influencing other affiliates.

And their decision to explore a united front or a mass workers’ party as an alternative to the ANC?...

As the general secretary, I do not want to steam ahead on this matter, except to say that there must be a discussion and engagement with these matters inside Cosatu.

All I can say is that in a class-divided society, no class asks another to act on its behalf. This would mean that we also need a thorough discussion about the ANC alliance and whether the ANC is still a pro-poor or a pro-workingclass party, and if so, what does and must this really mean in practice?

And what about the demand by your supporters for a special national congress, at which they insist they want to have the president of Cosatu, Sdumo Dlamini, removed?

I don’t want a congress called to discuss my issues mainly or to settle scores, but I support it because some are deviating from Cosatu decisions on labour brokers, e-tolls and so on.

There has also been a crisis in our public hospitals, but we must not be campaigning around that and we should not be fighting corruption and that R250?million was spent on one person and so on. Though not openly said, these are the real divisions. We are not seriously looking at dealing with the weaknesses in Cosatu and its affiliates. We are not learning from the Marikana massacre.

I am not wedded to the idea of the special congress, but if we can agree within the central executive committee and with the ANC that what is most important is not who slept with whom, but deal with these issues, then I will be most happy. I am also willing to face the matter of the sexual misconduct but that cannot be the main thing.

Despite all the very bitter divisions that have opened up between you and Dlamini, can you constructively work with him again?

We are already working together despite the difficulties. It is certainly not easy and requires great maturity. I am prepared to put my life on the line for the unity of Cosatu. However, I want real unity in action and not a superficial unity, but a principled unity based on clear policies and programmes we adopt and implement and a federation that is truly independent and not a conveyor belt or labour desk for any party.

The only mandate we must have is that derived from our members. The social crisis is so bad that it demands that we be a fighting and militant organisation and that we have a robust and critical engagement with the state in which we move it all the time to the left, including the ANC and SACP.

The affiliates supporting you are going to court to compel Cosatu to convene special congress. Will this not worsen matters even further?

We are presently engaging on that matter. While the affiliates do have the right to take Cosatu to court if they believe it is in violation of its own constitution, we are of the view that it is not helping us at this particular moment.

But we are also going to see what comes out of the ANC’s intervention because many see the special congress being held as necessarily part of that package.

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