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Sdumo Dlamini: Do the mighty always fall?

Predominantly considered a ceremonious position, the Cosatu presidency has assumed a new political form. Little is known about the trade union federation's president, Sdumo Dlamini (47), especially regarding the type of politics to which he subscribes. But recent allegations that he is leading an ongoing campaign to topple popular trade unionist and federation general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi have turned him into a possibly powerful political force.

Political analyst Andre Duvenhage says Dlamini has gotten himself entangled in the "Zuma Mafia" and, although the relationship sees him well placed, he may live to regret the association. "He obviously has no long tradition in trade union politics; he is merely being used by Zuma's ANC to deliver a Vavi-free Cosatu into the alliance ahead of the elections. That is an indication of how much pressure the ANC is feeling," he said.

Duvenhage says the ANC is playing a dangerous game and, in the process, endangering young political careers. He mentioned the Eastern Cape as one of the first things the ANC will lose if it persists in its campaign to silence Vavi. 

"Support for the ANC in that province is just over 50%. Vavi is a firm favourite there, and he has the organisational ability to mobilise and demobilise. The ruling party will pay the price and so will the likes of Dlamini."

Political analyst Nic Borain is not convinced Dlamini has the kind of influence needed to deliver factions within Cosatu, but says there could be an agenda in which Dlamini is playing a part. "Honestly, I do not see him as being powerful or significant enough to spearhead such a plan. Presidents [of union federations] seldom have political influence, it is the general secretaries that carry enough clout to change the political direction of an organisation," said Borain.

He was quick to say that the sex scandal has given Dlamini some level of prominence. "But he has not yet properly articulated himself on any political position. [National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa] and [Food and Allied Workers Union] seemed convinced that he has close networks with Zuma, so if he is in fact behind the campaign, it is definitely not his own agenda," said Borain.

Dlamini has been accused of circulating an incriminating intelligence report about Vavi among Cosatu affiliates. The report contains allegations of US funding of various organisations and persons – including Vavi – allegedly to undermine the South African government. The legitimacy of the report is shaky, but Vavi said state entities compiled the report. The state security department has since denied knowledge of such a report.

"It is understandable for a politically ambiguous guy such as Dlamini to forge relations with the state president, he does not have a choice. He is networking," said Duvenhage. Both analysts agree that whether or not Dlamini is guilty of bringing factionalism into Cosatu, things are not looking good for his long -term career in politics.

Dlamini has publicly denied playing a hand in the demise of Vavi, saying they have worked together for seven years and there has never been conflict or personal grievances. But a few of Cosatu's affiliates and Vavi supporters are adamant that he is working tirelessly to get Vavi out and turn the federation into the government's labour desk.

Although he does not exude as much charisma as his so-called nemesis, Dlamini is said to have a paralegal background and is a strong negotiator with developed conflict management skills combined with dispute resolution. As a leader of a federation movement with 2.2-million members that is in turmoil, he will need these skills and attributes to stabilise the federation in time for the 2014 elections.

Following the unceremonious ousting of Madisha, the federation's central executive committee elected Dlamini unanimously as president. Dlamini was Cosatu's deputy president at the time. He was only meant to hold this position until the 10th national congress, where members would decide whether to retain him or not.

He was elected unopposed at the 10th and 11th congresses. But this could change if Cosatu convenes the special congress that some of its affiliates are demanding to topple Dlamini from his position.

Dlamini, a trained nurse and midwife, is a Swaziland native who moved to South Africa with his aunt at a young age. Members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) have accused him of never being an integral member of the struggle for freedom, but Dlamini has had his fair share of struggles.

'My life was a struggle'
Dlamini has said he experienced a great deal of hardship owing to the fact that he was separated from his parents as a result of a custody battle. "My life was a struggle, I learned at an early age to work for schooling and a plate of food. I had to look after cattle and plough mealies," he once said.

In the 1980s, Dlamini enrolled for a diploma in nursing and practised at a hospital in KwaZulu-Natal, where he joined the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) following an illegal strike in 1990. He was elected as a shop steward and led six major strikes at that institution. He had already been a member of the ANC at the time.

The father of three cemented his role as a leader at Nehawu when he was elected chairperson at regional and provincial levels. He began his journey with Cosatu in 2000 as provincial chairperson. He served three terms and became the first deputy president at the ninth national congress. During this time he served as a member of the South African Communist Party – an ally of Cosatu and the ANC.

Dlamini, a Karl Marx enthusiast, considers himself a loyal member of the ANC since 1990. He emphasises that as a trade unionist he is not a friend of the ANC, but rather that he shares the same struggles as the ANC.

Dlamini has been outspoken about the need to fight for the unity of Cosatu and the alliance, saying that speculations are merely a distraction that he will not allow. He has aspirations of leading Cosatu and its members forward, despite the call for his removal.

"We are not working to divide or to split. Why spend time on fear? Why do you not spend time building Cosatu," he said on Wednesday.

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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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