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Vavi's expulsion has grave implications for SA

05 April 2015 - 02:00 By S'thembiso Msomi

There are no innocent victims here. Had Zwelinzima Vavi - the recently expelled Cosatu general secretary - been the one with the numbers on the trade union federation's central executive committee, he would have done the same to his rival, Sdumo Dlamini.We have been here before.In February 2008 - fresh from claiming the scalp of the then president Thabo Mbeki at the ANC's Polokwane conference - Vavi supporters in the central executive committee dropped the axe on Dlamini's predecessor, Cosatu president Willie Madisha.Of course, as Vavi protested during his news conference last Sunday, the details of the two cases are not the same.The committee expelled Madisha after a commission of inquiry found that he had failed to provide evidence to support his 2006 claims that Vavi had abused a Cosatu credit card and that South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande had, in 2002, misappropriated a R500000 donation to his party.But there can be no denying that Madisha's expulsion had everything to do with politics - as does Vavi's.In the run-up to the Polokwane conference, Madisha had thrown in his lot with the Mbeki camp - setting himself on a collision course with Vavi and other committee members, who wanted Jacob Zuma to be ANC president.Madisha's political rupture with Vavi and the majority of the pro-Zuma Cosatu unions had begun in 2005 when Zuma stumbled on information that Madisha had held a private meeting in Pretoria with Mbeki and the then defence minister, Mosiuoa Lekota, without Vavi's knowledge.A year later, Madisha was fighting for his political life as Vavi and his supporters pulled out all the stops to have the Cosatu president voted out of power during the federation's September 2006 congress.Madisha survived the congress, winning re-election by 1194 votes to the 1152 votes garnered by his Vavi-backed challenger, Zanoxolo Wayile.His narrow victory was thanks partly to the Western Cape Cosatu delegation which left Midrand's Gallagher Estate - where the congress was held - just before voting because it was worried about missing flights back home.But the Vavi grouping did not give up the fight. As the months went by Madisha became increasingly isolated, with only the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, led by Silumko Nondwangu, standing by him.Soon after the commission of inquiry brought Madisha's downfall in 2008, Nondwangu and his comrades in Numsa were ousted by a pro-Zuma grouping led by the new general secretary, Irvin Jim. Cosatu had cleansed itself of the "Unions Buildings' yes men". But, as Karl Marx famously wrote, history tends to repeat itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce".For the latest developments in the labour federation are a farce for all concerned.When Vavi backed Dlamini to take over from Madisha in 2008, little did he know that a few years down the line the two of them would be on opposing sides of a political battle that has since brought the giant federation to its knees a few months before it celebrates its 30th anniversary.But to blame Cosatu's split on a mere clash of personalities would be to miss its fundamental crisis.Established at the height of mass struggles against apartheid in 1985, the federation has generally failed to clearly define its strategic role in the post-apartheid era in which its political ally is in government.Cosatu benefited immensely in the early years of the democratic state from being in alliance with the governing ANC.It scored major victories against big business on the labour legislation score and has, over the years, influenced the outcome of many key government policies on the economy, health and social welfare.Many of its leaders, including founding general secretary Jay Naidoo and his successor Mbhazima Shilowa, graduated to top government positions on a Cosatu ticket.Other former unionists have become fabulously wealthy over the years thanks to the ANC's black economic empowerment policy - which Cosatu partly opposes - and through using the political networks they built up while they were in the federation.As a result many in the federation's leadership have come to see Cosatu as a stepping stone to better-paying government positions or into business.Over the years this has conspired to widen "the social gap" between the federation's leaders and its members - hence a steady decline in membership.When the federation backed Zuma's bid for the presidency ahead of the 2007 ANC conference, it couched the move as a strategy to ensure a better say for the working class in the government after the "neo-liberal" Mbeki administration.But there has been little evidence of any ideological shift since Zuma came to power - although the number of former trade unionists now holding parliamentary and cabinet positions has definitely increased.Frustrated by the fact that the Polokwane victory did not translate into the labour movement dictating terms for the Zuma administration, Vavi and Jim began pushing for a more independent voice for Cosatu. This approach met opposition from Dlamini and the majority of member unions, who profess to believe that a "quiet diplomacy" approach wins more concessions from the Zuma administration than Vavi's confrontational stance.Although many saw Vavi's expulsion this week as the breaking point for the federation, the truth is that Cosatu has been split in two for several years now. The latest developments just make it all official.When the federation went to its last congress in 2012, it was clearly divided into two factions - the unions that were pro-Vavi and those that weren't.Until the week of the congress, it seemed certain that both Vavi and Dlamini were going to be challenged for their positions and that whoever lost would be kicked out.But the numbers were too close for either faction to be confident of victory, and so they struck a gentlemen's agreement, promising not to challenge each other.At that congress, Jim and his Numsa delegation refused to wear congress-issued T-shirts that expressed solidarity with the pro-Dlamini National Union of Mineworkers - which was involved in violent conflict with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.They also avoided wearing ANC T-shirts, indicating they had already made an ideological break with the ANC alliance and were preparing for a future outside the governing party.Despite Vavi's axing this week, the ANC still insists that "unity talks" between the Cosatu factions will continue and says it hopes to keep everybody within the fold.For the party, Cosatu's break-up is an electoral disaster because the federation plays an important campaigning role during elections.With the local government elections only a year away and metropolitan councils such as Nelson Mandela metro in Port Elizabeth in danger of falling to opposition hands, some in the ANC believe the party should do all in its power to keep Vavi and his faction within Cosatu.But judging by the fact that no formal meeting between the parties has taken place this year, those agitating for talks do not enjoy the support of the majority.For the rest of the country, the implications of a Cosatu split are far-reaching.Vavi leaves with Numsa and six other unions which have supported him throughout his fight - but his departure has the potential to split each of the 18 unions that make up Cosatu.New labour unions are likely to emerge and challenge existing ones. As the Amcu example in the platinum mining industry has shown, this is likely to lead to increased militancy as unions compete for members.And that could spell doom for an already troubled economy...

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