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Vavi makes first big appearance at Numsa strike - what now?

Verashni Pillay

Cosatu's secretary general is still defending the union federation's shaky unity, even though plans for Numsa's break-away are already in motion.

Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi chose an interesting time to make his first major public appearance since being reinstated: at an address to thousands of striking National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) members outside the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council’s (MEIBC) offices in central Johannesburg on Tuesday.

It is the union that has aggressively supported him in the factional battles threatening to split the federation apart, and who have been pushing to break away entirely from an alliance with the ruling ANC.

Vavi had to fight his way through a sea of red to the podium to the sounds of his name chanted in rapid fire: “Vavi, Vavi, Vavi!”

There was an aggressive urgency to the chant as the throngs pressed forward, propelling the enormously popular leader forward. 

For some time now, Numsa’s leaders have been trying to convince Vavi of the need to break away from the ruling party and to forge ahead with its socialist agenda unhindered by the “neo-liberal” agenda of the ANC, as it sees it.

Special leave
Yet Vavi, who was ousted from Cosatu in an ugly stand-off with its president Sdumo Dlamini, has been convinced by that very ANC to return to Cosatu and heal the country’s historical union body, and by extension the alliance. Just in time too, ahead of the 2014 general elections where Numsa was threatening to withdraw its political support for the ANC. 

Vavi was put on special leave in August last year pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing relating to his affair with a junior employee.

Afterwards, Cosatu was split between affiliates supporting Vavi and those supporting his suspension, with Numsa lodging an application at the Johannesburg high court challenging the decision before the ANC-negotiated truce brought things to a sudden and shaky close.

But the hasty truce, forged by ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, is no doubt chafing those in Numsa. Cosatu’s largest and probably best-run affiliate seized on Vavi’s expulsion as reason to start forcing a break-away from the alliance. That led to a vigorous defence for Vavi and plans for a United Front to challenge the ANC, including a conference resolution and a political school that entailed reaching out to other grassroots community movements.

“This is what we’ve been trying to tell Vavi,” said an impassioned Irvin Jim, Numsa’s fiery secretary general at the Daily Maverick‘s The Gathering in April ahead of the elections. The truce had just been announced but Jim wasn’t backing off as he looked directly at Vavi in the audience while outlining why the left needed to break away from the ANC.

‘A movement for socialism’
A united front of the working class and poor was in everyone’s interest, he said, which was why Numsa was “researching for the building of a movement for socialism, an independent political organisation of the working class”. 

But Vavi, despite the enormous support he has received from Numsa and possibly his own misgivings, has not been convinced. “We have committed to making this work,” he told the Mail & Guardian at The Gathering shortly after the truce and his reinstatement was announced. “We have to give this unity a chance.”

Since then things have been at something of a stalemate. 

“They are in a state of limbo and no one seems to know what is going on,” said Vic van Vuuren, Director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) based in Pretoria. “He’s been reinstated. Does that make it business as usual? It doesn’t look like that. There was a truce before the elections but elections have come and gone. Now it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.” 

The simmering tensions within Cosatu towards Numsa is still present if Vavi’s remarks during his address on Tuesday was anything to go by. 

He was quick to note the massive supporting role Numsa had played when his own political survival was on the line. “I want to thank Numsa for giving me the support when there were the hyenas and the lions,” Vavi said to rapturous applause. 

But the agenda to create a unified Cosatu – as mandated by the ANC – was not far off. “Numsa never, ever said it wants to go out of Cosatu. That is a lie, we want to remain here. Cosatu is your home.”

Will Cosatu have Numsa?
Numsa’s place within Cosatu is hanging in the balance. Vavi is part of a team of people desperate to keep them there but others want them out. 

“The issue is not whether Numsa wants to stay in Cosatu, it is whether Cosatu will have Numsa,” said director for the Centre for the Study of Democracy, professor Steven Friedman. 

Friedman believes that the only thing holding the federation together at the moment was the “clearly very significant intervention by the ANC”.

And the show of support for Tuesday’s Numsa strike by its rival, the NUM, was nothing special, said Friedman. “The tradition in the trade union movement is that they express solidarity,” he said. “One can’t read terribly much into it. Quite frankly, they’re obliged to say that.”

Others have seen Numsa’s strike as a strategy to re-assert itself to Cosatu and the ANC.

The largest employer in the sector, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa), noted in a press statement that Numsa’s package of demands included things it has been unsuccessful in lobbying within the alliance, such as a ban on labour brokers and the youth wage subsidy.

‘Battle against government’
Bringing those demands to the bargaining table with employers appears in this light to be an attempt to reassert itself independently of the alliance. 

Seifsa chief executive officer Kaizer Nyatsumba said this was “a battle against the government, but used employers as a proxy”.

It could be a sign that Numsa is ready for the change it has been seeking for so long. And it may no longer be willing to wait for Vavi if he continues to push the idea of a unified Cosatu while sentiments have rapidly moved on.

Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi noted the danger for Vavi.

“There is now a strong possibility that the Vavi factor is no longer the main driver of tension and the political, strategic and tactical choices that will lead to the formation of a workers’ party,” he wrote in his Business Day column earlier this month. 

“The battles in Cosatu have reached a stage where such a workers’ party will possibly be formed for reasons that have less to do with defending Vavi from attempts by opponents to dislodge him. Rather, it would be much more for those that may be strongly linked to the imperative of realigning politics on the left of the ANC.” 

Instead of defending a shaky truce, Vavi may have to finally decide which side of the fence he is one.


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