Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi speaks to the Mail & Guardian about a wide range of issues, including the likelihood of more union splits.
He also spoke about the Marikana tragedy and the succession battle in the ANC and Cosatu.
Cosatu has come under criticism for failing to show leadership on the Marikana massacre. Why did it take you so long to respond?
It is not an easy matter; you can't jump into a situation like that without careful consideration of political and organisational circumstances. Lots of people do not know that we have been interacting with platinum workers in Marikana since February.
Listen to the podcast of the interview here.
The National Union of Mine-workers (NUM) has been knocking on every door in terms of authority to say there has to be action from the police in order to stop the intimidation and the systematic killing of people who do not want to join the strike. When the whole thing unfolded we saw 10 people being killed, which included six members of the NUM who happened to be shop stewards and two policemen.
We issued a statement expressing our shock and disgust. We called for a full investigation and refused to apportion blame. We are happy that the president has established a judicial commission of inquiry.
People say you have taken the position that you took because you do not want to anger the NUM. Does your lukewarm response have anything to do with the Cosatu national congress or the ANC elective conference?
No. I have never, ever responded to any national issues on the basis of saving my skin. I always believe in speaking the truth and being honest and frank about the political situation in our country. I have seen that allegation in the media and people have written about it in newspapers and letters, but there is no truth to that.
Have you become a lame duck?
No. I would have become a lame duck if Cosatu members were beginning to show signs of disrespect and were terribly divided, or not showing any form of support to me as general secretary. No. We are far from that. The day you win the support of each and every member of society is the day you know that you are no longer acting on the basis of any principle and you have become a jellyfish, or an amoeba who changes shape all the time in order to accommodate contradictory situations.
I do not want to be like that. I represent something and I have a particular character. Cosatu has its own character. I want to preserve my character. I don't want to find [myself] in a situation where I am desperately attempting to reach out to everybody, including those who are diametrically opposed to the very basic principles that I believe in.
Do you think the NUM has failed to provide leadership on the Marikana debacle?
Look, the principal issue that the Marikana situation exposes to the NUM, Cosatu and society is the terrible and unacceptable conditions of work in the mines, which are linked to pathetic pay levels that are an insult to thousands and thousands of mineworkers who risk their lives going three or four kilometres deep down to mine gold but share nothing in terms of the social value that they generate every day.
Were we caught off guard? No. We have been warning about a ticking time bomb for years, saying that if we don't address the current levels of unemployment, poverty and inequalities at some point, the poor and those who are feeling the pinch will march to our own boardrooms to demand that we do something about their circumstances.
When that happens, the union that has been agitating and bringing to the attention of the world these conditions should provide leadership. The union has been trying to provide leadership, even though some members mistakenly believe that the NUM has not played a positive role.
There have been weaknesses and there have been organisational weaknesses, including the failure of shop stewards to be in charge of the situation to the point where some members now believe they can lead their own struggles and make their own representation with management. For example, one of the shocking things coming out of a worker survey of 3 300 members across the nine provinces is the fact that only 40% of our members are happy with wage settlements. This means 60% are not happy; these are the people in Marikana who are unhappy.
Cosatu and the ANC Youth League have been vocal on the need for radical policy change, including the nationalisation of mines and other key sectors. Do you believe Marikana has harmed your relationship with the league?
No. We were very pleased with the statement that the youth league issued this week, distancing itself from the Friends of the Youth League and in particular from utterances that [expelled league president] Julius Malema and his friends made, which were seen to be divisive. The real friends of workers can't be the ones who champion divisions among workers, no matter the weaknesses in the NUM or in any Cosatu union.
You can't, as a real friend of workers, say, in order to address your organisational weaknesses, form new unions. That's no different from what the Democratic Alliance would do. A real friend of the workers would say "here are the weaknesses, let us address them". It won't say move away from the unions. That's no different from what the Congress of the People did in 2009, or what United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa did several years ago.
When you see drops coming from your roof you ... don't leave your children behind [or] ask for a place next door. The reasonable thing to do would [be to say]: "Let's close the leaks and continue to stay in our house."
Economists have warned that nationalisation would be a very expensive exercise and drive away investors. What is your reaction to this?
It's a scarecrow to force people off the discussion that is necessary in South Africa and unavoidable. The members of the ANC and alliance should not allow those using the issue to intimidate them.
We are calling for the establishment of nationalisation and of strategic mineral resources and direct state involvement, and we will not back off from that position. That discussion will be concluded at our congress.
Are you worried about the perceived gap between union leaders and the workers?
We have identified that as one of the issues that we must look at and make sure we close the gap, even if it is just a perception. There are also perceptions that the leadership is not on the ground and are not agitating members enough and are not fighting with the poor shoulder to shoulder, and this often results in the most marginalised members of our society battling it alone without the active support of the leadership.
The trade unions are often conservative and like to keep the salaries of staff and leadership closely related to the reality of the workers on the ground, so for many years we have been trying to never open the gap between ordinary workers and officials and we suffered. We lost almost every senior economist to non-governmental organisations or the government. Every union is trying to improve the base of its officials because we will lose them.
The Cosatu president has made it clear he wants Jacob Zuma to be re-elected as ANC president. Do you share his views?
He never said that. I have not said he must be re-elected. We are saying the 2007 Polokwane conference of the ANC was a major breakthrough for workers and we must defend those policy platforms. We must not [only] defend them, but we must advance them.
We are critical of a class of tenderpreneurs and our responsibility is that we must defend that collective leadership, including the resolutions on a policy level. In doing so we remain critical. We believe that Cosatu must not name its preference to the ANC conference outside the ANC processes and that it can only do so if things are rolling back to pre-2007, or there is a danger that tenderpreneurs will hijack the ANC and drive it against the workers' interests.
Some people say you have overstayed your welcome in Cosatu. Why do you see the need to stand?
Ironically, it was me who said I can't proceed beyond 2012. I made it clear to all Cosatu members. I felt that the time had come for me to move on. In 2009 I said "let another person come in", but hardly a year after August 2010, at the Cosatu central executive committee, we said the alliance was at a crossroads and people said "how dare you leave under these circumstances". I was hammered left, right and centre. That was a mistake, because it opened the succession debate prematurely. But I am going to stand even if I am contested.
Will you consider a position in the ANC if nominated?
No. If I am re-elected that rules me out.
Are we likely to see more union splits within Cosatu?
It depends entirely on Cosatu's response. If Cosatu goes to the national congress and says there is nothing wrong with us and we are a perfect organisation and we have grown by this percentage and we are the biggest union in the continent and we have no problems, I have no doubt we will see more union splinter groups going forward.