South Africa: 'The conflict in COSATU is about its political direction'

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Zwelinzima Vavi.

Statement by the Democratic Left Front, South Africa

July 29, 2013

1. Comrade Zwelinzima Vavi [secretary general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, COSATU] has handed his opponents a Samurai sword to behead him. Allegations of rape and extra-marital sex* with a junior employee are serious. These allegations have to be investigated regardless of our strong suspicions that they are being used by supporters of the [Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa and on the ruling African National Congress,] faction in COSATU to get rid of a hated independently minded critic of government policy. The workers’ movement must be seen to always act in defence of women particularly in South Africa where the violence, abuse and rape of women is completely out of hand.

2. Vavi's opponents are trying to bring charges of financial impropriety and political misleadership against him. This is because he has been outspoken against the Zuma government’s continuity with neoliberalism, corruption and cronyism. He has also been a critic of South African Communist Party (SACP) general secretary Blade Nzimande for sacrificing the SACP’s independence. He has also angered the party elite by working more closely with civil society formations.

3. COSATU’s Central Executive Committee has been virtually paralysed by accusations and counter-accusations. An independent commission was set up to investigate these. Up until now it appeared as if making the accusations against Vavi stick would be difficult. Now the plot to rid COSATU of Vavi and deliver the federation to mainstream ANC Alliance politics without seeking a mandate from the members of COSATU has become more likely.

4. We believe it is unfortunate that the conflict in COSATU, which is fundamentally about the political direction of the movement and its independence is being played out through the person of Vavi and in the process the political issues have become obscured.

5. A paralysed and divided COSATU is a god-send to the bosses who have launched a massive onslaught against workers. Mine and farm workers are under attack for daring to fight for a living wage. Workers in the public sector are facing the threat of wage compression as advocated in the National Development Plan. Labour brokers and e-tolls further threaten the position of workers. A united, militant and politically independent COSATU is crucial for the defence of working-class interests as we approach 20 years of post-apartheid rule. Over the last two decades unemployment has doubled, South Africa has become the most unequal country in the world and there has been a massive loss of wages to profits in the national accounts.

COSATU is at the crossroads not because of Vavi’s so-called misdemeanors but because the alliance with the ANC has not delivered the better life for workers that the end of apartheid promised. COSATU hoped by backing Zuma against [former president Thabo] Mbeki there would be a fundamental change in policy. This, now clearly, was a failed strategy. Vavi and a number of affiliates now recognise this and threaten the continuity of the ANC Alliance under the Zuma-Nzimande faction. Moreover, Vavi and his allies have dared to confront corruption not just in high government office but within the union movement itself. This has outraged compromised leaders of COSATU affiliates who have now turned their daggers towards Vavi’s back.

6. The time is ripe for decisive action to cleanse COSATU of in-fighting and bad behaviour among the leadership and restore the militancy of COSATU’s first decade. The rank and file of COSATU need to have the opportunity to speak their voice. If the haemorrhaging of COSATU is to stop and possibly prevent a major split in the federation, worker leadership, democracy and accountability must be restored. Power must be cascaded to the members and away from over-paid bureaucrats.

7. The Democratic Left Front believes that in light of the current situation it is urgent for COSATU to call a special congress where the political direction of the federation can be debated. Workers must be given the opportunity to elect a new leadership and based on the outcome of the investigation into the rape charges Vavi can be cleared or appropriately charged.

[* These allegations have been withdrawn.]