As a march of several thousand Cosatu members wound its way through Braamfontein in Johannesburg this Wednesday, their former leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, sat just metres away, albeit six floors up, listening to arcane legal arguments.
Trade union federation Cosatu said it was mere coincidence that the show of power on the streets, in the name of preventing retrenchments, came exactly a week after the United Against Corruption marches in Pretoria and Cape Town, marches initiated by Vavi and supported by the expelled Cosatu affiliate the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).
Vavi and Numsa said last week the marches were not aimed at the ruling alliance, although, apparently coincidentally, they are working on plans to oppose the alliance politically and at trade union level.
But Vavi’s presence in the labour court on Wednesday, attending a hearing in which he has no formal interest, was no coincidence. Nor was the presence of Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini at a small, confused protest on the streets of Bryanston on Tuesday a coincidence. Each was throwing his weight behind one of two factions fighting for control of assets worth as much as R4-billion – and the fate of a potentially key union – in a matter that has turned a minister against a technocrat, torn a union in two, reconciled former enemies, resulted in many court cases, and is only just starting to get going.
And the gloves are coming off.
On Tuesday, Dlamini joined, unexpectedly and unannounced, a march by the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (Ceppwawu) against one of its own service providers.
About 150 people, many of whom, it turned out, were from sister unions such as the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union and the police union Popcru, gathered in Bryanston to call for the head of high-profile businessperson Isaac Shongwe, who administers an investment fund on behalf of the union.
Technically, the group also called on other individuals to resign, and for an investigation into the investment fund, but, on paper, the action was aimed squarely at Shongwe, “for wanting to enrich himself with over billion rand”, as a flyer for the event put it.
He and Ceppwawu have for years been involved in a dispute about the union’s investment portfolio, which saw huge growth in the past decade, mainly thanks to its shareholding in Aspen Pharmacare.
According to the union, Shongwe engineered a management deal that entitles him to 27.5% of the funds, a share it estimates is worth R1.2-billion today.
The focus was not on him exclusively. In his alleged quest to exploit workers, the group heard, Shongwe had “sown division” in Ceppwawu, allegedly with “brown envelopes”, the classic reference to bribes – which is where Vavi comes into the picture.
Several years ago, Cosatu president Dlamini told the small crowd from the back of a Ford bakkie acting as stage that Shongwe had approached him to seek a settlement of the dispute.
In an ensuing conversation, Shongwe mentioned that he had already reached out to the then Cosatu general secretary Vavi with the same offer. To which Vavi – according to Shongwe, as told by Dlamini – responded: “How much is in it for me?”
Although Shongwe had just been branded as unreliable in a dozen different ways, this revelation drew gasps from the crowd, followed by dark mutterings about the place Vavi has reserved for himself in hell.
Told of the incident later that day, Vavi dismissed it as rubbish. “I’m taken aback; this is a new one. All these years he has never said such a thing before.”
Vavi said he had never met Shongwe, but he believed that Dlamini had, and that there were rumours that Dlamini had actually uttered the words he attributed to Vavi. “He wants a new narrative to say everyone else is guilty,” Vavi said.
Speaking from Nairobi on Thursday, Shongwe flatly denied Dlamini’s version of events. “I haven’t ever offered anyone a bribe and never will offer anyone a bribe.”
Although the fate of the Ceppwawu treasure is the issue over which the two sides are competing, the war goes far beyond that.
Vavi is “organising all reactionary forces against us”, the South African Communist Party second deputy general secretary, Solly Mapaila, told the protest.
This battle, Dlamini said, was “representative of all the other battles around investments” in the union federation, and a case study in how such investments “have been used to destroy Cosatu”.
And these divisions were now over, Dlamini said forcefully: “This thing ends here, now, and today.”
But a day later, two different factions of Ceppwawu were sitting in the Labour Court in Braamfontein, with four of the union’s seven regions and several national office-bearers pushing to have it placed under administration, while the other part of the union furiously resisted it.
Each group claims to represent the union. Those who wish to unseat the union’s top leader greeted Vavi warmly, and all but held him hostage to have photographs taken with him after the hearing.
“When we win this thing, we’re going to take our union, take all our money, and we’re going to go with this man [Vavi], with Numsa, and we’re going to show them [Cosatu],” said a Ceppwawu member who refused to give his name.
But winning has proved to be difficult for either side. Although two groups of Ceppwawu lawyers were in court on Wednesday, both were respondents to an application brought by the department of labour, which originally sought to place the union under administration for failing to submit financial statements for several years.
According to one group, the union is R56-million in the red.
Also in court was Johan Crouse, the registrar at the department of labour, who demanded those financial statements and, when they were not forthcoming, brought the legal action against Ceppwawu.
But Crouse was not represented by lawyers, because he was fired in July for bringing the action against Ceppwawu. An acting registrar quickly sought to change the course of the legal action and in effect keep Ceppwawu afloat.
On Monday, a different court ruled that Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant had not acted fairly and objectively when she fired Crouse, but, by Wednesday, the department had said it intended to appeal that finding, leaving Crouse in limbo, and an acting registrar and one faction of the union working together to fend off the other faction.
To some, all this manoeuvring had a clear implication.
“You can keep your Vavi; we have the minister,” one Ceppwawu member taunted another.
“Go cry to Numsa,” said another.
The Labour Court on Wednesday reserved judgment on an amendment application, and the full matter is expected to take several more months to resolve.