Vavi interview: Cartoons, hyenas and graft

2013-05-05 14:00

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In the maelstrom of South African politics, the Cosatu general secretary stands firm against his detractors

Two things that strike you as you walk on to the ninth floor of the new Cosatu building in Braamfontein, Joburg, are framed black-and-white portraits of Chris Hani and Nelson Mandela hanging prominently on the walls, and a series of framed Zapiro cartoons.

There is something heroic, yet unsentimental, about the way these portraits stare back at you. If they represent the country’s heroic past, then the cartoons mirror its troubled present.

The man who occupies the offices, the labour federation’s general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, is fond of cartoons.

They always festoon his secretariat reports to the federation’s congresses, and often serve to illustrate his scathing critique of the country’s political situation.

In a smaller room where we sit down for the interview, there are three portraits of Oliver Tambo – another struggle icon the 50-year-old labour boss admires.

As workers celebrated Workers’ Day on Wednesday, Cosatu’s leadership is rocked by divisions that threaten to split it down the middle.

And Vavi and his critical stance towards the ANC lie at its centre.

But Vavi says the attacks on him are a “deliberate, coordinated and orchestrated” campaign to find him guilty in the court of public opinion to force him out of his position.

Referring to himself in the third person, Vavi says: “The aim is to weaken him politically, to make him not to be able to coordinate the work of the federation as the (Cosatu) constitution says that he is the centre of?organisational coordination of our work.

“And (to get) him to fight fires internally permanently and weaken him politically, raise a massive cloud over his head, and eventually go for the kill. The kill is to get him removed in a small boardroom.”

While the leadership squabbles have not resulted in the loss of members for a 2.2?million- member federation, Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration statistics show that employers now win more than 54% of the cases Cosatu unions have brought before it.

But Vavi reckons that this has to do with how unions are servicing members, and not internal politics.

This should ring alarm bells for unions as surveys conducted by Cosatu’s research arm, Naledi, show that members join unions mainly to get protection from dismissals and unfair disciplinary action, and to improve wages and working conditions.

The divisions also happen at a time when the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2012/13 has ranked SA at the bottom of 144 countries when it comes to employer-employee relations.

The report cites factors such labour relations and wage bargaining flexibility as being among the issues the country has to improve to enhance its global competitiveness.

Cosatu-affiliated unions such the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) are fending off splinter groups that are threatening to nibble away at their support base in their sectors.

At its bargaining conference in March, Cosatu warned that the age profile (40 on average) of affiliates should be a “wake-up call”, and said unions were not doing enough to organise younger workers.

Vavi reckons that the biggest threat facing the federation is that it might split.

“The danger is when workers come to the conclusion that the leaders have abandoned them because they want to fight to finish. There’s a proverb that says the inheritance of brothers who fight to finish is enjoyed by strangers,” he says.

“If Cosatu gets demobilised, completely divided and weakened, all of those things that are in the collective bargaining, organising and campaigns conference will not even be worth the paper they are written on.

“They will not happen.

Cosatu will not drive a listening campaign so that workers can speak to the leadership and express their concerns about a range of issues in the workplace.

“Cosatu will not drive a campaign to ensure that every union reorganises, embarks on organisation development and trains shop stewards?.?.?.?so that they can service membership better. The biggest danger of them all is that Cosatu may split because of all the shenanigans that are currently under?way.”

Vavi says the federation should fend off a split as this would be the worst legacy the current crop of leaders could bequeath to their successors.

Some of Vavi’s critics in the labour movement argue that his crusade against corruption has turned him into a “liberal” who fails to see that corruption is a prominent feature in all capitalist economies, and they say he is too fixated on public sector graft. But Vavi denies this accusation.

“The (newspapers’) sources are saying the general secretary is leading Cosatu into unchartered waters. They are saying I am fighting corruption in a manner that embarrasses the movement.

“We’ve gone to court with a coalition fighting against companies that are fixing the price of bread and milk, and we’ve been in the Competition Commission to demand that steps must be taken?.?.?. that the companies that are making us eat donkeys (disguised as pure beef) must be punished as part of Cosatu’s consistent work against corruption.

“But people ignore all of that. They say our stance is against government,” he says.

In 2010, Vavi’s wife Noluthando was forced to resign from financial services company SA Quantum after the company was caught in a bribery scandal involving the Mail & Guardian.

SA Quantum had given a boss of a Cosatu-affiliated union a car as a present, allegedly to promote the company’s products to union members.

Some in the organisation argue that part of the opposition to Vavi stems from the way he has intervened in the internal affairs of the unions.

For example, his intervention during the illegal strike at Impala Platinum last year did not endear him to NUM leaders who felt he was encroaching on their turf.

Similarly, a faction of the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union leadership has accused him of being partial in his interventions to resolve the divisions that have crippled the union’s leadership.

It centres on the control of the union’s trust fund and its investment arm – and some say Vavi is partisan.

Even though Vavi creates the impression that some of the leaked information about the Cosatu leadership squabbles does not cost him any sleep, it is clear the Cosatu leadership crisis is taking its toll on his private life. “It is grossly unfair to be subjected to this. All of us have families.

They read (newspapers) and listen to radio, and listen to these shenanigans,” he says.

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