Alliance and union leaders are working to have Zwelinzima Vavi removed as Cosatu's general secretary, in the first-ever challenge to his leadership.
Plans are being laid for the downfall of trade union federation Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi in the run-up to the labour federation's national congress next month.
Senior union leaders of Cosatu affiliates and from the South African Communist Party, the ANC's and Cosatu's alliance partner, have held behind-the-scenes meetings recently to discuss a strategy to remove him from the position, the Mail & Guardian has established.
Fikile Majola, general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu), is being touted to replace Vavi, who has become a thorn in the side of those seeking the re-election of President Jacob Zuma as ANC president in December. Unlike Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini, who is seen as a Zuma ally, Vavi has been vocal in criticising the ruling party and government under Zuma's watch.
This appears to have created a rift between him and other senior leaders in the federation. There has also been a falling-out between Vavi and Zuma.
The Cosatu congress is expected to set the tone for the ANC conference in Mangaung in December. Those who support Dlamini in lobbying for Zuma's re-election include Majola, National Union of Mineworkers' general secretary Frans Baleni, South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) general secretary Mugwena Maluleke and National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) president Senzeni Zokwana.
Vavi is believed to be in favour of leadership change in the ANC, although he has not said so publicly. His supporters among Cosatu leaders include National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa general secretary Irvin Jim, Sadtu president Thobile Ntola and South African Municipal Workers' Union general secretary Mthandeki Nhlapo.
Four union leaders who are among those seeking Vavi's ouster said this week there was a feeling developing among the leaders of Cosatu's affiliates that he should not be returned to the powerful position he has held for three terms.
Two week ago, Sadtu in Limpopo mounted a scathing attack on Vavi in a press statement, which a provincial leader said the general secretary had seen before it was made public. This was seen as a clear indication that some Cosatu leaders are fed up with Vavi.
The NUM announced recently that it had assessed the Cosatu leadership, but was not at liberty to disclose its findings. Although Nehawu took a resolution in December last year to support the current leadership of Cosatu, some of its leaders now want that decision to be reviewed.
"If there are further irritations between now and September, we will have to decide our position," said a senior Cosatu leader who was not authorised to comment.
"If people [Vavi] consider the unity of Cosatu, then there won't be a contest. But if, in his organisational report, he goes after individuals and affiliates, he will change the tone of the congress. In the past he has attacked affiliates in central executive committee reports. He allows himself to get into petty arguments with other leaders. He has his challenges, which they [Cosatu leaders] use against him," the leader said. "He [Vavi] should not entertain other unnecessary things [in his organisational report]. He must not talk about himself."
Judged by history
Another Cosatu leader, who is sympathetic to Vavi, said: "We know there is a group of Cosatu leaders that Zuma's camp is trying to control. He should ignore them. They will be judged by history. How many of them [Zuma's so-called leftist allies] are driving BMWs? He must not say 'Zuma betrayed me'. He already went overboard on Zuma and in the process he has compromised himself. He can have a critical analysis, but Cosatu is not the only alliance partner."
The M&G also understands that SACP leaders also lobbied to have Vavi's allies removed, such as Cosatu's Gauteng chairperson, Phutas Tseki, and North West provincial secretary Solly Phetoe, in a bid to weaken him. However, both leaders were re-elected.
"The SACP tried very hard to remove the Gauteng and North West party leaders. They are trying to remove anyone who is close to Vavi," said a union leader who asked not to be named.
In an interview this week, Vavi welcomed discussions about the Cosatu leadership and said it was healthy. "This is democracy at its best," he said.
He said Cosatu leaders who had taken the "federation forward" and made progress on the mandate from members at the previous congress should be chosen. "Union leaders and members must speak and lobby and I hope they do it for the best interest of the members and federation."
Responding to claims that he is too vocal in his criticism of the ANC, its alliance partners and the government, Vavi said he is an "open book". "I don't hide anything."