Last week the Cosatu provincial secretary in the Free State, Sam Mashinini, sent out a letter to all the federation's affiliate unions making a special appeal to them to desist from "destroying our movement". The letter, in the possession of Daily Maverick, appears to be an appeal for a ceasefire as divisions which have beset the federation have now reached crisis proportions - in Mashinini's words, "eating it like a slow poison".
He was responding to a series of media leaks alleging corruption and political misconduct on the part of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. The main allegation, pertaining to the sale of the old Cosatu headquarters in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, has now prompted an internal inquiry which will be presided over by auditing firm SizweNtsalubaGobodo. Police union Popcru is alleging that it attempted to buy the building for R15 million but that Vavi undervalued the building and sold it for R10 million, to the benefit of a family member.
Labour lawyers have also been drawn in consider complaints from affiliate unions on the political and organisational functioning of the federation under Vavi's leadership. Vavi is facing an onslaught from unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), which apparently believe that Vavi's outspoken views are misrepresenting the positions of the federation.
Backed by Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini and senior leaders in the ANC and SACP, the move is aimed at building a case for Vavi's removal as the voice and face of Cosatu. The same group considered putting up a candidate to contest Vavi for the position of general secretary at last year's Cosatu congress. While a truce was reached to prevent Vavi and Dlamini from being challenged for their positions, the feuding has continued. Relations between senior officials in Cosatu have now reached an all-time low due to the persistent allegations against Vavi.
The Cosatu central executive committee (CEC), made up of the senior officials of the federation as well as representatives of all the affiliate unions, will meet at the end of May to consider the outcome of the probes.But Vavi's backers, particularly in metalworkers union Numsa and the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) are fighting back, determined to turn the heat on Dlamini instead. Fawu has proposed that Cosatu convene a special congress to discuss the divisions and breakdown in relations among the senior leaders. But Cosatu insiders say the aim of the special congress would be to boot out Dlamini and replace him with someone Vavi can work with. The May CEC is expected to discuss Fawu's proposal for the special congress.
Speaking at Numsa's national bargaining conference on Tuesday, the union's president, Cedric Gina, said the Fawu proposal would be seriously considered. "Fawu seems to believe that we have taken too long to resolve the hangover from the Cosatu congress and maybe a special Cosatu congress can be a better solution," Gina said. He said Numsa would come to a decision on the matter at a closed central committee meeting on Friday. In his letter, Mashinini asks why damaging and false information was continuously being leaked despite agreement within Cosatu for restraint while internal processes are underway to address the issues of concern.
"Comrades, these things [media reports] are read by workers and members on the ground, shop floor, workplaces and factories, let alone the general society and it pains one to come to terms that some amongst our leadership have concluded that they will continue to put the name of the organisation in the mud."What are we going to gain by doing this, comrades? Except that the federation is going to lose face, respect [of] its own members and society in general and ultimately we will suffer heavily in terms of advancing our own struggle," Mashinini wrote.But Mashinini's letter came in the wake of another hostile Cosatu meeting last week at which Dlamini demanded that he be given a record of the information handed over to the investigators. However, Dlamini's detractors argued against this as they suspected that he wanted the documents in order to leak them. Sources at the meeting said that most people know the investigation will not lead anywhere as the allegations against Vavi were flimsy, but these could be manipulated in the media to look bad.
Another source close to the fallout said that Vavi's enemies in Cosatu had a better chance of motivating for his removal based on his failure to implement Cosatu resolutions and heal divisions within the alliance. He said a case could be made that Vavi was "misbehaving politically" by not carrying out decisions of the federation, including convening bilateral meetings with the SACP and ANC. But these accusations are also thin and unlikely to gain much support among affiliate unions.Vavi's strength is that he remains popular among ordinary union members who could turn on their own leaders. Dlamini, on the other hand, is not popular on the ground but has political leverage and cover as a member of the ANC national executive committee and SACP central committee and politburo. The big problem for the respective camps at the moment is that they do not have heavy-hitting candidates to replace either Vavi or Dlamini.
NUM general secretary Frans Baleni would be an obvious choice to step into Vavi's position but would not want to do so unless he was guaranteed not to fail. Nehawu general secretary Fikile Majola could also be considered but is said to be eyeing a Cabinet position after the 2014 election and therefore does not want the Cosatu post. Ahead of the Cosatu congress last year, Vavi's detractors contemplated the federation's provincial secretary in KwaZulu-Natal, Zet Luzipho, but could not mobilise sufficient backing for his candidacy.Dlamini's detractors also do not have an obvious candidate to replace him. Thobile Ntola, president of teachers union Sadtu, was considered to stand against him at the congress but there is unlikely to be consensus on him taking on the position. Ironically, Dlamini was the stand-in president when Cosatu axed Willie Madisha in 2008. At the time, however, Cosatu was united in support of President Jacob Zuma and therefore the move to oust Madisha was relatively painless.
This time, Cosatu is fractured and the very person who kept the federation on course is now under siege. Vavi can only survive if Dlamini is removed as it is becoming impossible for the two to work together in spite of their public denials that all is well.In the build-up to the Cosatu CEC at the end of May, the crossfire between factions is set to intensify. The meeting at Cosatu House in Braamfontein will not only define the futures of Vavi and Dlamini; it will will also define the future direction of the federation.Across the Nelson Mandela Bridge, in central Johannesburg, some of the occupants of Albert Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters, will be watching with interest. The future relationship within the alliance will be wholly dependent on who wins Survivor: Cosatu.
*Ranjeni Munusamy is a survivor of the Salem witch trials and has the scars to show it. She has a substantial collection of tattered t-shirts from having "been there and done it" - from government, the Zuma trials, spin-doctoring and upsetting the applecart in South African newsrooms. Following a rather unexciting exorcism ceremony, she traded her femme-fatale gear for a Macbook and a packet of Liquorice Allsorts. Her graduation Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks means she knows a thing or two about telling the South African story. (The Daily Maverick)