Cosatu show of strength isolates Zwelinzima Vavi

Zwelinzima Vavi and his backers were hoping the Cosatu special congress would consider reinstating him. He may have overestimated his rank-and-file support. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Zwelinzima Vavi and his backers were hoping the Cosatu special congress would consider reinstating him. He may have overestimated his rank-and-file support. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)


Zwelinzima Vavi, the expelled Cosatu general secretary, will have to wait a little longer before he realises his “Lula moment” in South Africa – either through Cosatu or the new labour federation he and his supporters are planning to form. For now, it’s Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini’s moment and he is in charge.

Dlamini scored a victory this week when an overwhelming number of delegates at the labour federation’s special national congress rejected Vavi supporters’ attempts to reopen the debate on reinstating Vavi and metalworkers union Numsa.

Vavi has spoken about South Africa’s need for a “Lula moment”, referring to the turnaround in Brazilian politics engineered by the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The socialist leader spearheaded his country’s combination of rapid economic growth and reduced levels of extreme poverty over the past decade.

When he was still Cosatu general secretary, Vavi believed he could use his powerful position to force the government to make structural changes to the economy and to compel the ANC-led alliance to reassert its commitment to a culture of service and accountability. But his rivals in Cosatu, particularly Dlamini, appear to be comfortable with the government’s economic policy direction under President Jacob Zuma.

The support Dlamini received at Cosatu’s special national congress this week suggests that his leadership approach enjoys far more support from ordinary members of the federation than previously thought.

Waning popularity
The pro-Vavi group was hoping that congress delegates would succeed in reversing Cosatu’s central executive committee decision to expel him. What transpired, though, were signs that Vavi’s popularity among Cosatu members has been waning fast since his dismissal.

Even Vavi himself admits support to get him and Numsa back into Cosatu has dwindled. He blamed this on the purging of many Cosatu members who supported his cause from the federation. Vavi told the Mail & Guardian that taking the fight to November’s elective congress might be a waste of time because disagreements created parallel structures within several Cosatu affiliates.

“Since the special congress we received feedback from a number of people who say ‘you guys have done everything that you could have. You need to give up’, but I’m not going to determine what needs to happen.”

Vavi added that talk of plans to start a new federation was a tactic being used by his opponents “to create confusion among workers”. There was never such a plan, he claimed, though some of his supporters have mentioned this publicly.

Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said Vavi and Numsa “were saying that whatever battles they were losing in the central executive committee they could win in Cosatu as a whole,” Matshiqi said. “But what happened at the special congress does not support their reading of the balance of support.” 

Now some cracks have emerged in the nine unions that previously formed a bloc supporting Vavi.

Divided backing
The Communications Workers Union (CWU), the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa) and the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) are divided in their continued backing of Vavi and Numsa.

The CWU and Denosa distanced themselves from a statement issued by former Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven on behalf of disgruntled unions on the day the special congress ended.

In the statement, the Vavi-supporting unions admitted defeat at the special congress but vowed to fight on. They also claimed the powerful leadership faction had long planned to ensure that Vavi and Numsa were “surgically removed from the federation”. 

They said the current situation recalls what former National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union general secretary Fikile Majola once said about “the need for an unavoidable and desirable split in the federation”.

“It is our considered view that the purpose of this special national congress has been deliberately undermined. There is neither unity nor cohesion,” the rebel unions stated.

New federation
The eight disgruntled unions, minus Numsa, are also dragging their feet on plans to form a new federation to rival Cosatu.

Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) general secretary Katishi Masemola confirmed that Denosa and the CWU had distanced themselves from the statement because they were not part of a caucus meeting held to discuss the contents.

Masemola said while the standing resolution by the rebel unions is to support Vavi and Numsa, some unions are not as vocal as they were previously. “I don’t see Denosa and CWU as energetic [in their support for Vavi and Numsa] as before,” he said. “But I am not surprised.”

Once a vocal Vavi champion, the CWU’s support for Numsa and Vavi has become a one-man show featuring only the union’s general secretary, Aubrey Tshabalala. 

At the Cosatu special national congress, CWU delegates said Tshabalala and the union’s president, Clyde Mervin, had a disagreement. A source in the CWU national leadership, who declined to be named for fear of being accused of sowing disunity, confirmed this. The senior leader said some of the union top brass were pushing for the CWU to reverse its decision to support Numsa and Vavi at a national executive committee meeting next week. Tshabalala confirmed that the meeting would “discuss the latest development and take decisions accordingly”, but would not say if there are divisions in the union. 

Samwu split
Samwu has been split in its support of Numsa and Vavi. Craven, who speaks for the rebel unions, claims that Samwu is part of this grouping, but during debates at the special congress part of Samwu’s input criticised Vavi and his supporters. 

Matshiqi said it might well be that while some Cosatu unions want the reinstatement of Vavi and Numsa they disagree on issues such as forming a progressive United Front or an alternative federation.

“If you are engaging in a battle and you get maximum support on one issue, don’t assume that you are getting maximum support on everything,” Matshiqi said.

He believes the battles in Cosatu have overtaken Vavi. “As things stand, his only option is Numsa and the Numsa agenda.”



Matuma Letsoalo is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003, focussing on politics and labour, and collaborated with the M&G's centre for investigations, amaBhungane, from time to time.In 2011, Matuma won the South African Journalist of the Year Award and was also the winner in the investigative journalism category in the same year.In 2004, he won the CNN African Journalist of the Year prize – the MKO Abiola Print Journalism Award. Matuma was also a joint category winner of the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the year Award in 2008. In 2013, he was a finalist for Wits University's Taco Kuiper Award.
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