Vavi: Down with corruption, forward with Lula

In order to reduce poverty, create decent work and reduce inequality and unemployment, South Africa needs a 'Lula moment', says Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

In order to reduce poverty, create decent work and reduce inequality and unemployment, South Africa needs a 'Lula moment', says Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

The second day of trade untion federation Cosatu's national conference was dominated by one man. It wasn’t Zwelinzima Vavi or S'dumo Dlamini. It wasn’t even one of the Mangaung rivals, Jacob Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe.

The person taking centre stage throughout the speeches and debates was one Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the popular Brazilian politician and trade unionist who, during his time as president from 2003 to 2010, instituted key social and economic reforms that saw Brazil become the world's eighth-largest economy and more than 20-million people rise out of acute poverty.

"We need a Lula moment," declared Vavi in his much-anticipated political report at the conference.

It was typical of the man who has avoided being sucked into the narrow and divisive leadership battle that is threatening to tear apart the ruling party; a battle he sternly warned his organisation against being drawn into. Instead of coming out for either candidate, Vavi said infighting could see the ANC collapse, which would also mean Cosatu members would suffer, and, avoiding the obsession with Zuma versus Motlanthe, Vavi introduced a new character into the debate: Lula.

The popular Vavi was re-elected unopposed the day before, despite the machinations of a pro-Zuma lobby in the alliance to remove him from power for his often vocal criticism of government. He didn’t spare the ANC and government this time either, listing the failures of the ruling party and the greed of "predatory elites" threatening to hijack the movement.

He took a hard look at the ANC and the alliance and pronounced the ruling party to be in a poor state of health; noted there was a disengagement and disillusionment with politics that was starting with the middle class, which was an indication of more things to come; and hit out at the corruption and nepotism that threatened to overwhelm the movement – and the country.

"Your family must never be allowed to do business with the institution you lead," he said.

Punting his "Lula moment" as the high road alternative to corruption and Mangaung-inspired infighting, Vavi did what he does best: avoided power-hungry agendas and acted on his own terms.

"In Lula's second term [2006 to 2010], he engineered a dramatic turnaround, which saw a series of amazing improvements of the living standards of the working people, which continue today," he has said in a previous column and echoed at the conference on Tuesday. 

"It is reducing poverty, creating decent work and reducing inequality and unemployment. It is what we call the 'Lula moment'. The other key leg of this strategy is the introduction of social protection measures to ensure that all the poor, including the unemployed, have access to basic income. These redistributive policies have been effectively combined with state-driven industrial and investment strategies. Their achievements of the last decade have been dramatic."

He spent some time detailing the lessons South Africa could learn from Brazil, and the "Lula moment" overshadowed the rest of the day – popping up periodically in an open debate among various unions with the usual amount of dissent and loud protestations to the contrary. Indeed, his idea struggled to get much traction, with ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe being one of its sternest critics.

"You can't put the 'Lula Moment' in a suitcase and bring it here from Brazil," he said acerbically, after criticising Vavi for failing to acknowledge the ANC's second transition policy, later dubbed the second phase of the transition.

Other union representatives pointed out the conditions in South Africa were too different from those in Brazil, while the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) said that the real "moment" was the Freedom Charter moment, and that South Africa needed to revisit the radical economic goals of that founding document.

But author and analyst William Gumede had a different take as to why South Africa couldn't have a Lula moment. "There is a major difference between us and Brazil and that's the difference between Lula and Zuma," Gumede told the Mail & Guardian after Vavi's speech.

"Zuma is not a trade unionist and he doesn't have a strong vision for the country."

Gumede said there is only one man who could fulfill that visionary and morally upright role as Lula did, and that man is Vavi himself.

"Maybe Motlanthe, but mostly Vavi: somebody who came through the democratic tradition of the trade unions like Lula. Vavi has been one of the most consistent, progressive voices giving direction on anything in this country. On the other populist extreme we only have Julius Malema providing a voice and direction."

A future with Vavi as South Africa's president? Maybe. "It's not very likely that Vavi will ever lead the country but we don't know, perhaps in the future," said Gumede. "Marikana showed us that the country is now at a tipping point."

But Tim Harris was less impressed and also skeptical of Vavi’s "Lula moment". The economics spokesperson from the opposition Democratic Alliance has also been inspired by Lula's incredible turnaround in a country that faced many of the same challenges that South Africa does. But he seemed to view it through his own more centre-right lens than Vavi's leftist take on Lula's leadership.

"It seems to me that Mr Vavi has misread the true nature of former President Lula's leadership of Brazil," he told the M&G. "Although he hailed from a trade union background, Lula was a reformist president who liberalised Brazil's markets by cutting spending, paying down debt, trimming the bureaucracy, rationalising inefficient state-owned enterprises and reforming business laws to incentivise investment."

"His plans were focused on long term growth and not simply appeasing the populist with quick fix solutions. Lulu took tough decisions to implement deep reforms and Brazil reaped the reward with higher growth rates." 

Harris has come up with his own plan to lead South Africa into a brighter future. But economic planning is a crowded space in South Africa. Everyone and their uncle seem to have an idea on how to fix our problems, but we lack one thing: leadership to get us there.

Political science professor Somadoda Fiken told delegates in his own address after Vavi's that a multiplicity of plans was one of the reasons South Africa is not yet ready to have a "Lula moment".

"RDP comes and goes, GEAR shifts gears, Asgisa becomes New Growth Path and the national plan is still contested. 

"This new turnover of policy is something we need to investigate. Every time a new policy is implemented billions are spent. 

"When you're a teacher, today it's OBE, tomorrow it’s something else. As you're starting to get used to something it changes. You can’t have a Lula moment with this."

Gumede agreed: "There are too many plans and no direction."

"It's escapist, we don't want to confront reality. I think even if we had no plan and got our institutions to work properly and our hospitals and schools functioning, that alone will allow economic growth.

"Countries that had long-term plans did very well. Asian countries like Taiwan had very pragmatic and not ideological plans. They got everyone involved – the opposition, civil society, unions. Everyone agreed with the plan and had a role to play. But they also had the political will to implement the plan. We don't have the political will to push the plan through."

And it seems that is what's ultimately missing from South Africa. We have the National Planning Commission's idea of how our future should look, Vavi's plan and others but with a president seemingly more fixated on being re-elected than choosing one and sticking to it, we have reached a stage of paralysis.

"These days as a researcher I think any plan will work as long as there is consensus – and political will," said Gumede.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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