Posted on Tuesday, 12 May 2015 14:53

South Africa: No goodbye to Vavi yet

By Crystal Oderson in Cape Town

Zwelinzima Vavi has not revealed what his next move may be. Photo©Lebohang MashiLoane/The Times/Gallo Images/Getty ImagesCosatu's outspoken general secretary has gone, but deep divisions remain.

Africa's largest trade union federation, the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), is facing its toughest challenges in its 30-year history.

Over the past few months, the federation has been dogged by internal squabbles.

if Cosatu feel they can build it without Vavi [...] then it's their decision

It expelled its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa, and it also kicked out its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, on 30 March.

The dismissal is a culmination of disputes that have plagued the federation for the past two years.

Vavi has long been critical of corruption in President Jacob Zuma's government.

Cosatu suspended Vavi in March 2013 when he faced claims of abusing his position to get a job for a woman he was in a relationship with.

The high court set aside the suspension in April 2014, Vavi was reinstated, but the divisions remained.

Cosatu is investigating Vavi for financial misdeeds and used his failure to attend Cosatu meetings as a justification to expel him.

Vavi says his dismissal was unfair and illegal. He will have to wait until July to hear more about his fate.

The union initially suggested that the meeting had been scheduled to take place in September, when Cosatu is having its congress and 30th anniversary celebration.

But an out of court settlement with some of its disaffected affiliates, led by the expelled National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) and eight other unions, has seen the trade unions' mother body changing the date of the congress to July 14 and 15.

Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini and Vavi have become arch-enemies with different political stances and support bases.

Dlamini does not criticise Zuma, and more importantly he is also part of the ANC's powerful national executive committee.

The majority of Cosatu's central executive committee supports him.

The outspoken Vavi offers a leftist critique of Zuma, saying that he does not protect workers' interests, is presiding over rising inequality and is doing very little to stop corruption in the ANC.

Vavi says the mighty Cosatu, which for years held the apartheid state to ransom with its militant actions, has become a toothless and irrelevant body.

It has been absent from major socio-economic debates, with the internal issues holding it back from critical engagement with its members.

Vavi will certainly not disappear, and South Africa's union landscape is set for more upheaval over the following few weeks.

Local media report that Zuma took a hard line on Vavi and division within the labour union federation ahead of its 30th anniversary.

Cosatu is in an alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party.

Apparently, the ANC is not united in backing Vavi's expulsion.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said: "The easiest thing is to expel someone but the most difficult is to build an organisation. But if Cosatu feel they can build it without Vavi [...] then it's their decision."

In response to the news that he was fired by a federation that has been his political home since the 1980s, Vavi tweeted: "Don't mourn, organise."

The storm has since settled and both Vavi and Dlamini are taking their respective campaigns to the shop floor.

The Dlamini faction is justifying the expulsion and without naming Vavi directly he said: "Obviously there will be ill-feeling, and a faction has given up on the Alliance. Others believe in it."

In April, addressing a packed NUMSA shop steward meeting in Cape Town, Vavi, who is still very popular with the rank and file, said workers must mobilise on the ground and urged them to continue to fight for the soul of the union and for it to return to its militant roots.

Cosatu expelled NUMSA in November 2014 after the union withdrew its support for the ANC.

NUMSA's criticisms of the ANC-led government are similar to Vavi's.

For now, Vavi is keeping his cards close and not revealing whether he will head to the courts to be reinstated, join NUMSA and the left-leaning United Front or choose another path.

Another option is to form a new federation to challenge the 30-year dominance of Cosatu in South Africa's labour landscape, which could certainly mean change for workers. ●

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