THE BIG READ: Cosatu's season of discontent - Times LIVE
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THE BIG READ: Cosatu's season of discontent

S'THEMBISO MSOMI | 2012-09-17 00:09:09.0
Zwelinzima Vavi's continued leadership of Cosatu comes under the spotlight this week at the union federation's congress in Midrand Picture: LEBOHANG MASHILOANE

Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi goes on trial this week.

At a time when the country's giant union federation is confronted by a major credibility crisis - with the events at Marikana and other mines suggesting that it is beginning to lose its grip on its traditional constituency of organised black labour - expect delegates to the Cosatu congress to be preoccupied with whether Vavi should be retained.

Vavi has been at the helm of the federation since taking over from Mbhazima Shilowa in 1999. Over the years, he has helped build the federation into something more than just a trade union movement concerned only with the welfare of its members on the shop floor.

Under his leadership, Cosatu has become one of the most important and credible voices of post-apartheid South Africa. Hardly any major decision is taken by the government without the views of Cosatu being considered.

Even though part of the governing ANC alliance, Cosatu has at times played an important opposition role - taking on the government on such issues as the HIV/Aids policies of the Thabo Mbeki era, the kid-glove approach to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's human rights abuses and, more recently, e-tolling.

In the process, Cosatu's membership has grown impressively - from 1.8million in 2000 to just under 2.2million this year.

This growth occurred as the economy continued to experience extremely high unemployment, with some sectors shedding jobs.

Yet, when Cosatu delegates gather at Gallagher Estate, northern Johannesburg, for the start of their four-day congress this morning they are likely to be split into two camps. One would be agitating for Vavi to serve yet another term as general secretary whereas the other would be seeking his removal.

Murmurings of discontent within Cosatu about Vavi's leadership have been doing the rounds for the past two years. But evidence that all was not well between Cosatu and some of its affiliates became apparent last week when Vavi's own union - Cosatu's largest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers - failed to nominate him for the post.

Indications are that the NUM and other affiliates unhappy with Vavi are likely to support KwaZulu-Natal secretary Zet Luzipho if he is nominated from the floor.

But the fact that Luzipho had not been officially nominated by last Wednesday, the official closing date for nominations, suggests that the anti-Vavi unions are not that eager to have him as their new boss.

However, this does not mean that Vavi's re-election is a fait accompli. As the largest affiliate, the NUM will be sending 414 delegates to the congress and has close working relationships with other major Cosatu affiliates, such as the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) and the SA Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu).

If they do support Luzipho, there is a real possibility that Vavi - whose popularity extends far beyond the federation - could be a former Cosatu leader by Friday.

Some of his detractors in the NUM and Nehawu admit that Vavi's popularity with the Cosatu rank-and-file will make it difficult for them to unseat him.

But, they argue, they just want to make a point about their unhappiness with his leadership style by ensuring that his re-election is contested.

Vavi stands accused by these unions of being an "individualistic" leader who has turned the federation into a vehicle for his alleged political ambitions.

They are particularly unhappy about his attitude towards President Jacob Zuma's government - which he publicly lambasts on a regular basis for failing to arrest growing corruption.

To his detractors, being part of the ANC alliance places an obligation on Cosatu not to do or say anything that would embarrass the government or the ruling party.

Even more troubling are signs that the debate over Vavi's future is increasingly being influenced by divisions over who should be elected ANC president in December.

Though many of the civil society organisations which, like Cosatu, came into being in the 1980s during the struggle against apartheid have crumbled, the federation has continued to thrive in the post-apartheid era.

It managed to buck the trend precisely because, over the years, it has kept a delicate balance between independence and co-operating with the governing party.

If Vavi's removal is aimed at silencing Cosatu's independent voice, it will surely lead to the federation's eventual demise.


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