Editorial: Zwelinzima Vavi's fight rents fabric of the left

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. (Gallo)

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. (Gallo)

Campaigning around the future of trade union federation Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and the related fight over whether or not the unions adopt as policy the national development plan (NDP)intensified at the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) collective bargaining conference this week. Vavi's most important union allies fought back against efforts to defenestrate him and they flatly rejected the NDP.

Vavi himself said the plan asked workers to "co-operate with our own repression and exploitation". Allegations of political indiscipline and financial impropriety against him, he said, were leaked by "senior leaders of our affiliated unions at the level of the presidents and general secretaries". These close comrades, he said, "are the new enemies of the working class".

He could hardly have made it plainer where the trenches are dug. Nor does he have much choice. His only chance of salvation within the alliance lies in reaching members through a public campaign for the moral high ground. As he knows, however, that is a place our politics tend to detour around.

These coiled strands of leadership struggle and policy conflict are the DNA that has coded instability in the alliance since at least 1996.

It was opposition to the government's macroeconomic stabilisation ­project, Gear, that helped to harden the left's enmity with then-president Thabo Mbeki and led Vavi to campaign vigorously on behalf of Jacob Zuma.

Removing Vavi
In the first flush of the Polokwane victory that followed, Willie Madisha was forced out as president of Cosatu after a disciplinary case was trumped up to punish him for his support of Mbeki. His replacement, Sdumo Dlamini, is now an important figure in the Cosatu faction seeking to remove Vavi.

This time, Vavi finds himself in opposition not just to a resurgent Zuma, but also to the most powerful bloc of left leadership. There are important differences, however. First, Vavi is a figure of far greater political import than Madisha was, and the issues he has campaigned on, notably corruption, have begun to generate real popular resonance. Second, support for the NDP from the pro-Zuma left is distinctly ambivalent. They are going along for political rather than ideological reasons. Finally, the established unions face a major threat from new formations such as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which draws its perceived legitimacy from its outsider status.

Unlike Julius Malema, who is shivering in exile, a Vavi operating outside the alliance would pose a far greater threat than he does on the inside.

If the left leadership chooses to purge Vavi in pursuit of coherence behind Zuma and his programme, it will have ceded its role as a quasi-independent internal check on the ruling party, reducing the unions to a mobilisation tool for ANC factions. In accordance with the laws of political physics, the energy of opposition must then go elsewhere and perhaps take a less manageable form. In effect, the Mbeki plan to excise the left from the alliance will have been completed by the very people who removed him, albeit in a different form. Whatever your views on the NDP (which the Mail & Guardian broadly supports) this scenario would be hugely consequential.

Vavi has always refused to countenance it, however. He believes the ­hyenas are best policed from within the fenced reserve of the alliance and, indeed, that approach has helped to redress the imbalances of our single-party-dominated system. He may not have a choice for much longer.

This may not be the final point of rupture, but mark it down as a deep rift in the fabric. More will follow.

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