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Spotlight on Cosatu as Vavi runs the gauntlet

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) must anticipate scrutiny of its internal policies, structures and working culture as general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi enters a week in which his political career hangs in the balance.

Vavi could face expulsion if found guilty at the federation's special meeting on Wednesday. He might be charged for bringing the federation into disrepute after he allegedly, unilaterally, hired a 26-year-old woman and admitted to having sex with her at Cosatu House in January.

Vavi warned that Cosatu could find itself divided if leaders are not careful about what they do moving forward. "Risking a Cosatu split is something that we should work hard to avoid at all costs. I want to assure you that I will, as the general secretary, work hard to avoid this [worst-case] scenario. I urge all those who care about the workers' movement to join me in the endeavour to work for greater levels of unity and cohesion of the workers' movement," he said at the regional biennial general meeting of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) in East London on Friday.

Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini has said that Vavi's sex scandal "damaged" the federation's standing in society. The central executive committee will be receiving a report from the office bearers and their recommendation on the charges Vavi should face.

The possible charges against Vavi are:    

  • Having sexual relations with a junior staffer at the Cosatu premises 
  • Making a unilateral irregular appointment 
  • Bringing the organisation into disrepute 

Vavi could be removed or suspended if he is found guilty of misconduct or of bringing the federation into disrepute, according to Cosatu's constitution. Only the executive committee or a national conference can suspend or remove an official but the national office bearers can recommend disciplinary action to the committee. Once the office bearers convene a special executive meeting, the general secretary has to give affiliates no less than seven days' notice of the meeting.

'Regrettable transgressions'
Vavi on Friday admitted to being a compromised leader, but said he had not fallen into the ways of the capitalist class and accumulated dubious and unexplained money and wealth. "I have not stolen taxpayer's money and my hands have not been found in the national till, but I am compromised because of my own regrettable transgressions," he said.  

"I am compromised because of my own regrettable transgressions, which have caused immense harm not only on my family but on my standing as a working-class leader whose focused, forthright and honest leadership was, until this point, questioned by only a few in society."

Vavi apologised to his rape accuser's family. She is married with two children. "At the right time, I will ensure that both families close this chapter in the right way in line with our traditions and customs," he said.

National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) general secretary Irvin Jim has defended Vavi ahead of Wednesday's meeting, saying members of the public need to establish whether or not Cosatu national office bearers sanctioned and approved the appointment of Vavi's rape accuser before judging Vavi.

Jim did not comment on what he knows about the appointment.

Numsa called for Wednesday's proceedings to be placed on hold. "We have, over the many decades, lived with scandalous sexual behaviour by senior leadership in the national liberation movement involving men entrusted with executing and leading our national democratic revolution."

Zuma rape trial
Jim said Vavi should be treated as President Jacob Zuma was during his rape trial in 2006, and be forgiven by the nation. He accused the ANC and the public of being hypocritical for failing to give as much attention and scrutiny to Zuma's case as they are to Vavi's.

"And while we are on this subject, where exactly is the poor woman in question, in the [Zuma] saga?" he asked.

Numsa raised concern about the fact that Vavi's deputy, Bheki Ntshalintshali, called the special meeting. Numsa president Cedric Gina said at a funeral in Ga-Rankuwa that Vavi "is not incapacitated. So why is the special committee's invitation signed by the deputy?" He said this matter would be put to the central executive committee. Vavi, who attended the funeral, said nothing on the matter. 

Gina said Numsa would call a press conference on Monday to talk about what should happen at the meeting.

Numsa deputy secretary Carl Cloete said that anyone in the federation who has not sinned must cast the first stone at Vavi.

Numsa in the Western Cape claimed last month that the charge of bringing the federation into disrepute is the last resort for Vavi's political assassins.

"This will also not succeed. History is littered with examples of many falsely accused of rape, but they were never charged of bringing the organisation into disrepute. We must be consistent and principled, and we should not be selective," said regional secretary Luvuyo Lufele.

Vavi has continued to speak out about the lack of progress by the ANC government since it took over in 1994, claiming that socio-economic transformation in South Africa over the past two decades has not benefitted the majority of people, the working class and the poor.

He on Friday accepted the censure imposed on him by Corruption Watch, an organisation of which he is a board member, after admitting to having sex with a subordinate.

Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven declined to comment on the upcoming special meeting.

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Khuthala Nandipha
Khuthala Nandipha is a journalist for the Mail & Guardian. This involves writing about various social issues that develop and change on an hourly basis. Her interests are, in a nutshell, how South Africa and the world’s revolution affect the person on the street: “the forgotten voting citizens”, as she calls them. She loves writing, and taking photos as a way to complement her stories. She grew up on the south-east coast of East London in the Eastern Cape. She studied journalism at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. She is not new to Jo’burg, having spent the first eight years of her journalism career working for various newspapers and magazines there.

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