South Africa: Spotlight on Zwelinzima Joseph Vavi

By Crystal Orderson

Posted on June 24, 2011 11:38

The general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has won respect for his stance against corruption. Crystal Orderson saw him in action.

The general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has won respect for his stance against corruption. Crystal Orderson saw him in action.

It is not every day that supporters get to see the lanky unionist who has led Africa’s most powerful trade union for the past 12 years. And the 500 workers who waited for more than an hour were not disappointed. Over the past few years, Vavi, the 49-year-old former mining clerk who rose through union ranks from shop steward to Cosatu’s longest-serving general secretary, has become a critical voice in the ANC-­Cosatu-SACP tripartite alliance, warning that what he calls “tenderpreneurship” will destroy South Africa’s hard-won achievements.

“He could be our future president,” said one Cosatu member waiting for him to address a public-sector meeting in Tygerberg, near Cape Town. “He has a strong personality, is honest, talks tough on corruption and has the leadership qualities.”

A persuasive orator, Vavi had no prepared speech and simply spoke off the cuff. The workers, mainly nurses, hospital staff and other public sector workers, were all ears. “We need leaders in the ANC that are selfless and believe in principles,” said one. “There are too many people in leadership positions who are only interested in themselves and not in the plight of the poor.”

The fiery Vavi has consistently attacked the behaviour of political elites and those who have cashed in on supposedly redistributive economic empowerment deals.

Even senior cabinet ministers have borne the brunt, most recently the free-spending minister of co-operative governance, Sicelo Shiceka, and state security minister Siyabonga Cwele, whose wife was convicted of drug smuggling.

“I believe when a person is wrong, he is wrong,” says Vavi. “We cannot have a blind eye in the morning and then an open eye in the evening. If someone is corrupt we must say so.”

Vavi has also stepped on the toes of powerful individuals like firebrand ANC youth leader Julius Malema, accusing him of an outrageous lifestyle. “There can be no denial that those we have chosen have betrayed us, like someone spitting in the face of the ANC, spitting in the face of our heroes,” he said, calling for a “lifestyle audit” of Malema and other senior leaders. Malema in turn demanded that Vavi be disciplined by the party.

But Vavi has refused to be silenced and only toned down his rhetoric in the run-up to local elections. As an indication of his importance to the ruling party, the unionist was deployed to ‘hot spots’ during the election campaign.

DEC 1962 Born in Hanover, in Northern Cape
AUG 1987 Vavi, now a Klerksdorp COSATU branch chairman, working as a clerk in a Vaal Reefs mine, loses his job in the historic 21-day mineworkers strike
1992 Jay Naidoo asks him to become COSATU national organising secretary
MAY 2009 After months of campaigning, Vavi helps get Jacob Zuma elected as president

Expect to see more of this in future: Cosatu’s point man in the Western Cape, Tony Ehrenreich, was thrust forward as the mayoral candidate for Cape Town before the ANC named its own choice.

Vavi’s relationship with the ANC will be severely tested this winter as the unions gear up for annual wage negotiations, which last year saw unions take to the streets for almost a month. Public sector workers are demanding an 8% pay rise against the government’s offer of 5.2%, arguing that fuel and food costs have taken a chunk of their wages. They are looking to Vavi, with his few months left in office, to defend their rights.

Vavi has been coy about his ambitions beyond 2011. Cosatu elects a new leadership team just months before the ANC’s elective conference in December 2012. Vavi said in 2009 that he would not stand for re-election to Cosatu, but supporters want him to consider a position as one of the ANC’s top six.

Said one ANC leader: “Vavi is becoming a spokesperson for those who want a change [from Zuma] in 2012.” The pro-Vavi group is said to include sports minister Fikile Mbalula, whom supporters want to replace ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, as well as the influential human settlements minister, Tokyo Sexwale.

Vavi is playing his cards close to his chest but one thing is for sure: Zwelinzima Vavi, son of a mineworker and the country’s most principled rabble-rouser, is a person to watch.

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