The people’s court rules for Vavi

Judged by the throng of people wanting their photo­graphs taken with suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi outside the Johannesburg high court on Thursday, he has already won one case: the one in the court of public opinion.

Part of his "defence" in Johannes­burg's Pritchard Street outside the court was a truck with massive speakers booming struggle songs. His supporters came with posters. "We miss the critical ZV vote", read one.

Since his suspension on August 14 last year, Vavi has forged a campaign to show that he was wrongfully dismissed. The battle has been fought in the union federation's boardrooms where Vavi's opponents, many in high-ranking positions in Cosatu and also close to President Jacob Zuma, provisionally got rid of him following his affair with a junior employee.

On Thursday, the battle shifted to inside the high court. The small wood-panelled room quickly filled with people crowding on to the narrow benches. At first, they were split roughly down the middle: the Vavi supporters on the left behind his legal counsel and those opposing him on the right.

The division was subtle at first but then was solidified by body language, with those on the dividing line turning their bodies away from their neighbours. But then the clerk cleared a row for more lawyers, forcing friend and foe to sit together. Necessity forced them to talk politely for the remainder of the day.

Walking tall
The towering Vavi walked past them, shaking hands and sharing a laugh with everyone, even the opposing counsel. He sat slightly to the left of the man who orchestrated his removal, Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini. He cut a more sombre figure, engaging less with those around him. This was Vavi's room.

Vavi came to court to have a suspension that was decided at the last meeting of Cosatu's central executive committee overturned.

The National Union of Metal­workers of South Africa, one of the Cosatu affiliates opposed to his suspension, brought the issue to court to ask for the decision to be set aside. Vavi joined the motion, which has been opposed by Cosatu and the affiliates who wanted his removal. He was suspended following the affair and because of allegations of impropriety in the sale of the federation's previous headquarters and the purchase of its new headquarters.

Last year, at a meeting, Cosatu's central executive committee discussed what to do about the affair and the apparent irregularities. According to its constitution, a vote should have been held. It was not and, instead, caucus meetings were held by the federation's affiliate presidents and general secretaries. They decided to suspend Vavi. 

His counsel contended that the fed­eration's constitution says a vote by all members present has to take place for a decision to be made. They therefore asked the judge to set aside the suspension and reinstate Vavi.

Cosatu's counsel said the resolution by its caucus is a long-standing practice for resolving issues and the vote was unnecessary. They also argued that the court was not the right place for the matter to be heard; it should go to the Labour Court or the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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