Zwelinzima Vavi is under attack for being too critical and independent of the ANC government.
By Benjamin Fogel
April 12, 2013 -- Amandla!, posted at Links International Journal of Socialst Renewal with the author's permission -- the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is in the midst of the biggest crisis in its 27-year history.
This crisis has arisen from a South African Communist Party (SACP)-driven attempt to oust
democratically elected COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, under
the guise of corruption charges. The conflict's roots are in
longstanding political contradictions and ideological tensions between
COSATU and its Alliance partners – the ruling African National Congress and the SACP. At stake is not
only the leadership of COSATU, but its political and moral direction.
COSATU sources reveal that the anti-Vavi faction is an alliance
between the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and
elements of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), the Police and
Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) and the National Education, Health and
Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). COSATU president Sidomu Dlamini leads this
faction, which is in all likelihood driven by SACP general secretary
Blade Nzimande and ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe.
Vavi's allies are in the National Union of Metalworkers of South
Africa (NUMSA), the Food and Allied Workers Union, the South African
Commercial and Catering and Allied Workers Union, the Democratic Nurses
Organisation of South Africa, the South African Clothing and Textile
Workers Union and some smaller affiliates. He is also supported by
neutral unions wanting to resist measures that might lead to a split.
Most importantly, the majority of shop stewards in the federation
largely oppose moves to oust him.
Another battle is ongoing between COSATU's two most sizable
affiliates, NUM and NUMSA, who represent opposing political and union
traditions. NUM represents a COSATU tradition focused on securing a
closer working relationship with the ANC. NUMSA is the descendent of
COSATU's "workerist" tendencies , focused on building democratic workers'
power on the shopfloor and critical of aligning unions too closely with
the ANC. The tension between NUM and NUMSA has intensified as NUM's
popularity has reached an all-time low.
The anti-Vavi campaign
Vavi has been perhaps the most consistent and incisive critic of the
ANC administration's political trajectory within the Alliance. His
condemnation of a "predatory elite", criticism of the Nkandla project,
attacks on the SACP's decay and his own anti-corruption initiatives have
not made him popular among the Alliance's new paranoid and
patronage-ridden ruling faction, which views his open debate and
critical analysis as tantamount to rejection of the Alliance.
The weapon used by the campaign against Vavi has been leaks to the
media, including allegations that he sold COSATU's old building in
Johannesburg for R10-million less than its market value and awarded a
tender to a company that employed his step-daughter. No proof has been
produced, yet journalists have become complicit in factional politics by
uncritically publishing "stories" based on anonymous allegations.
A three-pronged inquiry into Vavi's affairs has been set up: labour
lawyer Charles Nupen heads up a political commission, former South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU)
president Petrus Mashishi will look into "organisational matters" and
Sizwe Ntsaluba-Gobodo will assess COSATU's administration and finances.
The inquiry will report back before the next central executive committee (CEC) meeting in May.
Tellingly, the anti-Vavi campaign has so far been conducted behind
closed doors, in typical SACP manner. Vavi's power, on the other hand,
relies on his ability to appeal directly to rank-and-file COSATU
members. His greatest defence against the political witch-hunt lies in
his capacity to mobilise workers and shop stewards.
Ironically, it is Vavi's former allies in the 2008 deal to bring Jacob Zuma
to power who have turned against him. The deal was designed to "overturn the 1996 class project" – the ANC's lusty embrace of
neoliberal macroeconomic policy. Although, without COSATU, Zuma might be
sitting in a prison cell instead of the Union Buildings, COSATU has
lost almost all the significant battles it has engaged in since Zuma's
2009 election (from the youth wage subsidy to e-tolling and the attempt
to ban labour brokering).
The SACP and COSATU
Veteran trade unionist Dirk Hartford told Amandla! that the crisis is
rooted in the SACP's longstanding desire to control the trade union
movement by deploying its cadres in leading positions, thus centralising
power in the hands of party leadership. This battle between the
dominant Stalinist current in the SACP and diverse independent political
currents has been ongoing since the 1980s.
The balance of forces in the COSATU leadership and CEC now favours the anti-Vavi, pro-SACP faction,
despite the lack of popularity of COSATU president Dlamini and NUM
general-secretary Frans Baleni among most COSATU workers. Vavi, on the
other hand, retains mass support and is perceived as being willing to
speak out of turn and put his neck on the line to defend workers'
The SACP leadership spends much of its time protecting Zuma's image
and his government's policies from perceived enemies of the party,
rather than acting on behalf of the working class. Vavi and NUMSA's Irvin Jim's
critiques of these failures have earned them the wrath of Nzimande and
Mantashe. The SACP receives a significant proportion of its funding from
COSATU affiliates: for example, a few years back, NEHAWU was alleged to
have used R20 million from membership dues to pay SACP salaries and
hire venues for their events.
Many workers criticise developments like this, as this shop steward's comments indicate:
The role of the SACP has gone down. It is compromised by having
members in parliament. There is that reactionary clause 4.6 in the SACP
that ensures this – which says if an SACP member is deployed by another
organisation they are bound by the commands of that organisation. The
SACP is in parliament because the ANC deployed them. If the ANC takes a
reactionary position like supporting the Youth Wage Subsidy are you then
bound by that?
Context of the crisis
This crisis also reflects structural economic shifts that have led to
changes in the composition of the working class. Resulting challenges
include difficulties of unionising the informal sector and the growth of
precarious labour to the unions' detriment. Furthermore, unions have failed
to respond to the intensification of class struggle, particularly in
mining and agriculture, often siding with employers rather than workers.
COSATU's ability to protect workers' interests has been called into
question. As a SADTU shop steward put it, "COSATU is seriously lacking
in dealing with issues facing workers. In the current conjuncture,
COSATU is not being militant but serving as a policy advisor of the
state. Leaders are no longer articulating the voice of members, but
their own selfish, material voice."
He added, "The likelihood is that those divisions are linked to
groups with material interests. Underneath all this is a politics of
accumulation. Our leaders have joined their government. Where is
[Sydney] Mufamadi? Where is [Jay] Naidoo? Where is [Cyril] Ramaphosa?
Where was he when Marikana [massacre] happened? They are sitting on the other side
of the fence."
Driven by workers, in 2010 the largest public sector strikes in South
African history forced direct confrontation between the ANC government and
COSATU, with much of COSATU leadership "missing in action" and some
actively trying to call off the strike prematurely. Workers' fury during
the strike was directed against Zuma and his administration, which had
promised a government more sympathetic to the working class. Despite
Vavi's comment that the federation would "no longer give the ANC a blank
cheque" during elections, the Zuma government has now moved further
away from the COSATU-backd resolutions passed at the last ANC conference in Polokwane.
According to political analyst Steven Friedman, an obsession with "high politics" and the ANC's leadership wrangles has led to a lack of
focus on labour issues and a lack of strategic direction in COSATU.
Workers' revolts directed at union leaderships are hardly unique. Friedman
also points out that workers who have left COSATU may tire of the
alternatives and eventually return, thereby forcing COSATU affiliates to
reorganise in order to retain membership.
"Social distancing" – the growing gap between a rising bureaucratic
caste of full-time shop stewards and union officials, on one hand, and
the workers they are supposed to represent on the other – forms a major
aspect of the crisis. Leaders who sit in plush, air-conditioned offices
and live in middle-class suburbs are removed from the lived realities
of workers. They increasingly lack the much-needed activist background
and skills borne of years of struggle on the factory floor.
What is lost is the culture of "shopfloor democracy" that built
COSATU in the first place. Union officials are often closer in
experience and priorities to management than to the workers they claim
to represent (although this certainly does not apply universally). The
vast discrepancy between the pay packages of top union officials and
average workers parallels inequality in the private sector as a whole.
For example, NUM general secretary Frans Balen, earns some R116,000
monthly, while the average worker earns around R3000.
Social distancing has been a major factor in a growing number of
breakaway unions, as union officials are simply unable or unwilling to
take up workers' demands. It was a key factor in last years's mineworker
strikes leading to the Marikana massacre. NUM has lost more than 100,000
members in Marikana's aftermath. Many have joined the independent
Association of Mining and Construction Workers Union (AMCU), set to
become the majority union in the platinum sector. Likewise, social
distancing is a major factor in the formation of the National Transport
Movement, a popular breakaway from the South African Transport and
Allied Workers Union.
The NUM's leadership seems to be in denial about the reasons for its loss
of members. Even though NUM itself has quite cosy relations with mining
conglomerates, it blames its membership losses on an elaborate
conspiracy by mining companies using AMCU as a front to "destroy and
dislodge the mineworkers by promoting another union".
COSATU, NUMSA, the NDP and neoliberalism
For years, senior ANC officials from Joel Netshitenzhe to Gwede
Mantashe have insisted that "our revolution" (the "National Democratic
Revolution") is multi-class and cannot become "hostage to narrow sectoral
interests" – that is, it cannot display a working-class bias. This
stance contradicts the COSATU line, based on the Freedom Charter, that
the ANC should be biased towards the poor and working class. The ANC's
new gospel is the National Development Plan (NDP), "the only game in
town", according to deputy president and billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa.
The NDP, however, much like Zuma's presidency, can camouflage itself
enough to appeal to many different interests.
Elements of the NDP, in NUMSA general secretary Irvin Jim's words,
appear to be lifted directly from the right-wing Democratic Alliance (DA) policy documents calling for wage
suppression and "market-driven growth". According to NUMSA, the NDP is
informed by "the ridiculous and false belief that South Africa's mass
poverty, unemployment and extreme inequalities can only be sustainably
resolved by growing the economy". This critique has triggered a rash of
responses, including from arch-neoliberal Trevor Manuel, who claimed
that Jim was possessed by an "infantile disorder", and from Jessie
Duarte, who accused NUMSA of being driven by "populism".
In turn, NUMSA press releases directly challenged the SACP leadership
and its role in COSATU. In response to a letter from SACP 'sJeremy Cronin, for
example, Jim takes public aim (on Politicsweb) at Cronin's own
apologetics and at the SACP's attacks on NUMSA and Vavi. This document
could, in effect, be read as a covert declaration of war on behalf of
NUMSA against the SACP.
According to an unnamed COSATU senior official quoted in the Mail and
Guardian, "Most leaders at the central executive committee level do not
represent the views of the workers. [Vavi's] strength lies in
addressing worker issues. Most key leaders of the federation are in the
SACP politburo or Central Committee. They are there to mortgage the
federation. They are not in the executive committee to represent the
workers, but the interests of the SACP. What made matters worse was the
election of key COSATU leaders onto the ANC national executive
committee." Despite the noise made about unity at the top of COSATU and
many unionists' refusal to comment in public about deep divides within
the trade union federation, it is clear that it has never been more
vulnerable or fractured.
In Vavi's words, "We cannot fight silly battles against one another
when our house is on fire." COSATU's enemies are waiting like scavengers
sensing weakness. This is a political battle and reflects an initiative
taken by Zuma's allies to purge the Alliance of the president's critics
in the run-up to next year's national election.
At the centre of this crisis is an ideological struggle for the soul
of the workers' movement and its future direction. Regardless of the
victor, while COSATU continues to put the ANC's political aims before
its own this crisis will remain unresolved. To protect their movement,
COSATU workers must stand up and openly resist the attempt to remove
Vavi and force the movement to toe the ANC line.
[Benjamin Fogel is assistant editor for Amandla magazine and a freelance journalist with a
particular in interest in labour issues and the intersection of politics
and popular culture.]
Amandla! editorial: Hands off COSATU!
April 11, 2013 -- Amandla! -- How ironic that the attack on COSATU
comes from within. Ironic, but not unexpected. Supporters of the Jacob Zuma
faction in COSATU want to get rid of general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi as he is too
independent-minded and too critical of Zuma and the ANC government.
Vavi has been outspoken about the government's failure to implement the
Polokwane resolutions and its continued promotion of neoliberal
pro-growth economics; he has shown his determination to fight the
predatory corrupt elite through the formation of Corruption Watch. His
independence in working closely with civil society formations like
Section 27 and pursuing popular alliances through initiatives like the
COSATU/Civil Society Conference of 2010 drew great anger from the SACP
and the ANC.
Faced by the majority of COSATU delegates at the October 2012
Congress, they did not have the numbers to oust Vavi and shift COSATU
into a transmission belt for ANC policy. A false truce was called.
However, in COSATU's central executive committee (CEC) they thought
they had the numbers – hence the extraordinary attack on the general secretary. Demanding his suspension on the grounds of alleged financial
irregularity, the "neo-Stalinists" seek to put Vavi on the defensive and
to remove him from the day-to-day running of COSATU. For the moment the
plot has failed. Nevertheless, the struggle continues. A recent meeting
of presidents and general secretaries of COSATU affiliates decided to
set up a committee to facilitate discussions on complaints made against
Vavi. Although this is a far cry from the inquisition that some on the
COSATU leadership wanted, it provides a platform to keep Vavi on the
back foot, especially in relation to charges of deviating politically
and ideologically from COSATU's agreed positions.
But who are THEY? They are lieutenants of the SACP's general secretary Blade Nzimande and of ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe.
Sdumo Dlamini, president of COSATU and current SACP politburo member,
is one. He is strongly supported by NUM's president and new chairperson
of the SACP Senzeni Zokwana; by NEHAWU's Fikile Majola, also a SACP
politburo member; and by POPCRU's president, Zizamele Cebekhulu, a
leading member of the SACP.
They believe that the path to power is through the ANC, no matter how
centrist or right-wing its policies. They have consequently liquidated
the SACP into the ANC – and not just the ANC, but the state itself. They
are the most loyal and resolute defenders of ANC President Jacob Zuma,
regardless of Nkandlagate or any of his other follies. They consequently
end up defending the indefensible: the Secrecy Bill, the Marikana
massacre and even the Youth Wage Subsidy. They support the New Growth
Path and the National Development Plan, despite the fact that the main
neoliberal precepts that marked GEAR remain the foundations of these
They speak of the national democratic revolution – by which they mean
that the ANC is the true and only representative of the nation. Their
so-called "NDR" is, in effect, nothing more than a cover for a
continuing capitalist dispensation, presided over by a new elite.
Inside COSATU they fight against class-struggle positions. They
oppose militant action against labour brokering and e-tolls. They are
the leaders of those trade unions that have bought into collaboration
with the employers through social contracts, share-equity schemes,
productivity accords and so on. Their personal lifestyles (salaries,
cars, housing, private schooling and the like) are not too different
from the lifestyles of top state officials and private sector managers.
But the attack on COSATU from within has been enabled and
orchestrated from without. Zuma's promise of a left shift after Thabo Mbeki's
neoliberalism has been betrayed. At Mangaung the ANC nailed its colours
to the mast of its BEE [black economic empowerment] backers – the Motsepes, Ramaphosas and so on. The
adoption of the NDP with its pro-business policies requires an Alliance
that does not rock the boat, that, in the words of the NDP, sacrifices
or trades wages for jobs. But as minister Gordhan has made clear in his
budget, the outlook for jobs is bad. So, to please the rating agencies,
the government needs labour stability and compliance from COSATU. COSATU
is supposed to accept wage moderation, corporate restructuring (read
retrenchments), special economic zones and youth wage subsidies without
too much of a fight.
However, a major part of the working class is not willing to accept
this. Twenty years after the end of apartheid they are no longer willing
to grovel for crumbs dropping from the table of social accords. That
was the real meaning of the mineworker and farmworker strikes and the labour
militancy of 2012. That was the significance of Marikana.
And substantial parts of COSATU, under pressure to deliver to their
members, are no longer willing to suck in their stomachs and accept
moderation. Even the business press cautions against sweetheart
unionism. A Business Day editorial (December 12, 2012) cautions employers
against being happy with compliant unionism:
Contrary to Mr. Dlamini's claim, the tendency of COSATU's leaders to
desert the workers' struggle and position themselves for cushy
positions in the government, or as black economic empowerment
beneficiaries, is precisely what is weakening the union movement. Some
elements of business tend to think that a weaker union movement is a
good thing. Perhaps. But this is extremely shortsighted. The shop-floor
chaos that can be the consequence of union battles is often worse than a
strike-prone labour force, and nothing demonstrates that better than
the Marikana tragedy.
So Nzimande and Mantashe have taken it upon themselves, on behalf of
the ANC leadership, to neutralise the militants in COSATU, to stop the
rot and bring COSATU back into the fold. Hence Vavi is the first target
of attack. Neutralise him and you arrest the drift of COSATU. And
perhaps they have more significant targets in their radar. NUMSA, under
Irvin Jim, has been a vehement critic of the Nzimande leadership of the
SACP. He attacked Nzimande for taking a full-time position in government
while remaining SACP general secretary. He has come out strongly
against the National Development Plan, labelling it as neoliberal and a
DA document. He also was one of the few leaders in COSATU who defended
the Lonmin strikers and condemned the police for the Marikana massacre.
This has further exacerbated tensions between NUMSA and NUM, COSATU's
two biggest unions. And it is these two poles that are at the epicentre
of COSATU's internal conflict.
All progressive forces – those that still believe that, through
redistributing wealth, we can fight the post-apartheid trajectory
towards growing inequality, joblessness, poverty, corruption and
authoritarianism – must unite to defend COSATU.
In respect to the attack on Vavi, we must say an injury to one is an injury to all.