Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has been dealt a double blow, losing two allies weeks before the labour federation's national conference.
It comes as he faces an unprecedented attack from senior union and South African Communist Party (SACP) leaders, who are apparently planning to oust him at the conference next month.
The first casualty came on Tuesday when Ephraim Mphahlele, president of the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union, resigned. Mphahlele claimed that Satawu leaders were plotting to assassinate him and said he had no option but to leave to join the splinter union, the National Transport and Allied Workers' Union.
His shock resignation followed hot on the heels of the departure of another Vavi ally, South African Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu) general secretary Mthandeki Nhlapo, who was ousted during the union's congress two weeks ago.
Their absence is unlikely to have any major bearing on his chances of being re-elected general secretary. He enjoys overwhelming support from ordinary union members and one senior leader described him as "a god to our members".
Vavi has lost the support of a number of union leaders who make up Cosatu's central executive committee, however. This was evident at Thursday's committee meeting when the report he tabled during the last meeting was rejected.
Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini is a close ally of President Jacob Zuma and the SACP's Blade Nzimande, both Vavi foes. Dlamini has the backing of a number of influential union leaders.
Although Mphahlele and Nhlapo are not regarded as major political power players among union leaders, both were strongly opposed to the re-election of the current ANC leadership under Zuma and were actively lobbying the provincial structures of their respective unions to rally behind the campaign for a change of leadership in the ANC, said two union leaders who spoke to the Mail & Guardian this week.
Vavi has not publicly stated his position on the ANC's succession, but union leaders believe he is opposed to Zuma's re-election.
Senior union leaders, who did not want to be named, told the M&G this week that no one among them appeared brave enough to challenge Vavi. However, the goal is not to remove him from office, but rather to weaken him politically. The ultimate goal is to ensure that Cosatu emerges from its national conference with a resolution to support the current ANC leadership so that Zuma remains in power.
"The predicament now is that Comrade Vavi is well grounded with affiliate members," said one leader. "He will win, but he will have to leave the conference with the mandate from affiliates that change [in the ANC] is not what we want.
The majority of affiliates want the status quo to remain and, looking at the numbers, that will be the outcome."
Doing union work
Another leader, who was not authorised to comment officially, said: "Mphahlele was close to Vavi. We wanted to remove him during the last central executive committee meeting but Vavi came down to save him. It was the same with Nhlapo – he was for change [in the ANC]and there's no doubt his removal is linked to Mangaung.
"The Mangaung heat is affecting a number of unions because there is a lot at stake with regard to the outcome of the Cosatu conference. Mphahlele had a passion for lambasting the second term for Zuma.
"He went around to provinces claiming to be doing union work, but then he couldn't account [for it]. That's because he was going around discrediting [union leaders in support of Zuma] and the second-term plan. We had to purge him."
But Vavi has dismissed this, saying the claim that the leaders have been removed because of their support for him or because of the ANC's elective conference is "absolute nonsense".
"Mphahlele issued a statement categorically stating his reasons for resigning," said Vavi.
"None of them has anything to do with Mangaung or me. Also, Samwu divisions have absolutely nothing to do with me or Mangaung. Unity has dodged the union for more than six years now."
Vavi on the ropes: Send us your questions
Submit questions on Cosatu and Zwelinzima Vavi for our live video chat with M&G deputy editor-in-chief and politics editor Rapule Tabane on Friday August 17 at 11am. Go here to send us your question OR vote on an existing question. We will also take your tweets sent to @mailandguardian in real time.
You can also join us via video for the live chat using Google Hangouts – a technology similar to that of Skype. To do so all you need is:
- A computer; a webcam, audio and mic facilities (standard on most laptops); and a reasonably good internet connection.
- Set up a Google Plus account which you can do using your existing Gmail account.
- Download the software here.
- Email your name, contact details and questions here and we will get in touch with you to take part in our live chat via video.