Camping at the Cosatu Congress

Stephen Grootes

Broadcasting live from a political conference is always a bit like camping. You're never going to know if you have enough stuff with you, you spend a lot of time sitting on the floor, and you can never find what you're looking for. But instead of losing the plastic cutlery, the person who I feared losing was one Zwelinzima Vavi. He's six foot four inches tall, but I still battled to find him on Tuesday, as I was looking to interview him.

When he finally did appear, literally as I was introducing the Midday Report, it was clear he'd lost his voice. It had gone from lusty to husky. The poor man had been speaking for three full hours, as he delivered his political report through the morning.

And what a report it was, full of fire, brimstone, lamentation and dismay. To listen to him talk, you would think imminent doom was upon us. In a way of course, he's not wrong. To look north to Marikana, and other mining towns, or settlements perhaps, he has a point.

But the main point of his speech, the sound bite I was looking for, was what would he say about Zuma? In the end, he proclaimed that to publicly pronounce now who Cosatu would support in Mangaung "would be premature". Much of the rest of his speech was a fairly lengthy criticism of our society, and parts of the ANC. For example, when talking about the ANC's Polokwane Conference he said, "We hugged them close to us, even though some of them were stinking hyenas". The point he was making was that that was a mistake, a compromise that was necessary for Cosatu to get what it needed (i.e. the exit of Mbeki).

Vavi could be seen to be at the height of his political power. He was re-elected unopposed, he is now seen as a moral voice in our society, he is not going to fight for an ANC position, and thus he has nothing to lose. This makes him free to say what he likes.

But while you might think that will immediately make him more of a Zuma critic, don't be too hasty. If Zuma does win at Mangaung, it will presumably be his last term in office. And thus he will have nothing to lose either. He won't need anyone's support, he just has to ensure that he doesn't enrage anyone enough to try and recall him.

So far the mood at this conference has been joyful, there's no hint of the intense feelings that come with contestation. As a general rule of thumb, the harder it is to get accreditation for a political conference, the more contestation there is, and thus the more fraught and aggressive everyone becomes.

There's been absolutely no hint of any of that here.

When I spoke to Vavi two days before the conference started, I asked him what the most important things were that Cosatu needed. His answer was simple, "unity" he said. It appears that on the surface at least, he may have got what he wanted.

Stephen Grootes is an Eyewitness News Reporter and the presenter of The Midday Report. Follow him on Twitter: @stephengrootes.