Vavi's popularity with delegates was evident when a highlights video package of the Congress of South African Trade Unions's previous conference in 2009 was shown during the official opening of the congress at Gallagher Estate in Midrand on Monday morning.
Delegates burst into pro-Vavi song every time he appeared on the screen. In contrast, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini, a close ally of President Jacob Zuma, only managed a lukewarm response.
A Cosatu delegate, who is in the anti-Vavi camp admitted that Vavi was popular and confirmed that most delegates rejected proposals by some leaders to have him removed.
"Workers just find it very difficult to have Cosatu without him [Vavi]. But I don't think this is the right thing. He has been there for long. They see him as [the] moral voice and conscience of the poor. For now it looks right. But the danger with this is the cult of personality and he might want to even anoint his successor when he leaves," said the Cosatu delegate.
Cosatu has adopted strict house rules for the national congress, including that cellphones be switched off during congress proceedings after receiving information that there were elements who wanted to disrupt the congress.
Other house rules included the prohibition of any signs that seeks to prematurely open the debate on leadership of the ANC.
The federation also stopped delegates from any songs against any alliance leader and the display of any posters, wearing of T-shirts, or circulation of material in support of any candidate in the Cosatu election.
A National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) leader stood up to complain that delegates should refrain from taking sides when cheering their favourite or preferred leaders.
"Dealing with leadership on a personal basis is wrong and divisive. Certain leaders, when they rise, there is noise and when others stand there no noise," said the NUM leader, in an apparent reference to Vavi supporters.
Earlier, President Jacob Zuma received a lukewarm reception from delegates, in sharp contrast to the last conference where he was feted as a hero. Cosatu unequivocally supported Zuma for the position of president of the ruling party in the run up to Polokwane, but the federation is now divided, between those who support his re-election and those want change.
Some leaders in Cosatu have criticised Zuma for failing to implement Polokwane resolutions, which were aimed at creating decent employment, reducing inequality and eradicating poverty.
South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande and the party's chairperson Senzeni Zokwana also received a mild response from congress delegates.
Relations between Cosatu and SACP are at their lowest point after Cosatu leaders made a call for Nzimande to resign his Cabinet position as minister of higher education and return to the party's head office on a full-time basis.
This is the first time in more than 10 years, Cosatu goes to its national congress at Gallagher Estate in Midrand – with the prospect of having the positions of two of its most senior officials – Dlamini and Vavi – contested.
The unions pushing for Vavi's ousting include The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), the NUM, the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) and the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru).
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), meanwhile, are gunning for Dlamini, whom its leaders have accused of failing to articulate Cosatu's standing resolutions to avoid embarrassing Zuma, the government and the ANC.
Sadtu president Thobile Ntola has been touted as the preferred candidate to replace Dlamini.
Vavi's opponents have taken issue with his public criticism of leaders of the ANC, government and the alliance. They want him to be replaced by KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary Zet Luzipho.
By midnight on Sunday, union leaders from various Cosatu unions were still locked in caucus meetings, which began on Friday, to persuade each other on crucial leadership positions within Cosatu, as well as key policy issues.
The Mail & Guardian was told late on Sunday that one of the key reasons the caucus meetings were prolonged was because ordinary members who are delegates at the Cosatu congress are resisting attempts by leaders to change the leadership collective in Cosatu.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official from Satawu said the union's delegates have rejected a proposal by its leaders to remove Vavi as general-secretary. The delegates also discouraged the plan by some Cosatu leaders to take a resolution to support Zuma's bid to be re-elected as ANC president.
"We have instructed our leaders to go convince other unions to push for the retention of the current leadership and avoid discussing ANC succession, said a Satawu delegate.
However, it appeared unlikely that Satawu's proposal would be accepted, as leaders from other affiliates stood firm in their push for their preferred leaders to take top positions in Cosatu.
At the weekend, Numsa rejected attempts by the NUM to convince delegates not to challenge Dlamini. Numsa leaders, according to internal sources, have also been angered by the NUM's decision not to nominate Vavi.
While Ntola and Luzipho had by Sunday evening not yet signed the nomination forms, it was expected that they would be nominated from the floor at the conference.
Asked whether he was prepared to taken on Vavi, Luzipho said: "I will answer to the IEC [Independent Electoral Commission]. No nomination form has been signed by me yet. If I make the decision, I will do it recognising the centrality of the organisation. I will never declare my availability outside the structures I serve. When I leave to take a full-time position outside Cosatu, I will do that through the structures of Cosatu. I am always guided by the organisation," said Luzipho.
He said while he believed the issue of leadership should not overshadow key policy discussions, the leadership contest in Cosatu should not be fought in terms of factionalism.
"We can't reduce leadership to division. We are aware as to what needs to be done. Part of that is to mandate the new leadership to take the organisation forward … We should not be preoccupied by what is accrued to us, rather than what is accrued to members," said Luzipho. It is critical to always bear in mind that one of the main reasons we are meeting is that we need to address issues that are of interest to our members."
"Leadership contest is not new to Cosatu," he added. "We have been through this, but Cosatu has always emerged strong at the end."
No sleepless nights
Vavi told the SABC on Sunday that he accepted that other nominations would be made, and that he was not worried about the prospect of losing his powerful position.
"Members have the right to evaluate their own leadership. If we have not delivered on the mandate [they have given us], it is their right to remove us. People have the right [to choose their preferred leaders]," he said. "I had 12 hours of sleep [on Saturday night]. I have done what I should do as part of the collective. Members will elect me if I have done well."
"I pronounced collective decisions," said Vavi, addressing accusations that he had spoken out of turn in public. But he warned Cosatu members not to be preoccupied by the issue of leadership while forgetting the pressing issues facing the country.
"The biggest mistake will be to shift our focus from [pressing issues of policy] to concentrate on leadership squabbles.
"This is the only opportunity we have to address these issues. We can't afford to make the congress about leadership, but a platform to change the mindset [to focus on the triple challenge of inequality, unemployment and poverty].
"If you turn the conference as a palace to fight politics, I can guarantee you [the federation of trades union] will have no future. But I doubt that's what members want," said Vavi. "They want to see improvement in their life, improvement on their wages, improvement on the condition of their employment and protecting their own jobs."