Cosatu's make-believe world
Had Cosatu's media briefing on Wednesday not taken place in the very room where its central executive committee (CEC) was supposed to be meeting, at the time they were still meant to be in session, perhaps the fairy-tale they presented would have been more believable. The scheduled three-day CEC meeting had a full agenda, including discussing Cosatu's position on the National Development Plan, e-tolling, labour law amendments, the Protection of State Information Bill and preparations for an alliance economic summit in July.
But the issue not on the formal agenda was the real hot topic: allegations of impropriety against Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. The issue has been bubbling over since Cosatu's previous CEC meeting at the end of February. The allegations of fraud and corruption against Vavi, particularly pertaining to the sale of Cosatu's old headquarters in Braamfontein, were raised sharply in that meeting, and as a result it was decided that two facilitators should be brought in to look into the political and organisational functioning of the federation. It was also decided that an auditing firm be appointed to look into Cosatu's finances.
This week's CEC meeting was meant to receive reports on all these investigations and then decide on Vavi's future. In the run-up to the meeting, the federation's two biggest affiliates, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) made it clear what the big issue was - and boldly stated their respective positions on the matter. NUM general secretary Frans Baleni said at a media briefing on Sunday that the corruption probe against Vavi should go ahead as all Cosatu leaders should be held accountable for their actions and subjected to the discipline of the federation.
Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim, also briefing the media on Sunday, said his union would "put up a fight" if anyone tried to remove Vavi and they would also reject a vote of no confidence in Vavi's leadership.
Yet the narrative of Wednesday's Cosatu media briefing was that Vavi was not under investigation and that there was no question about his status in the federation. While there was acknowledgement of "the dangers of fighting silly small battles against one another" and "some problematic ideological, organisational and administrative issues which arose at the February 2013 CEC meeting" in the media statement, the thrust was that Cosatu is not divided and there were no "fundamental" issues of contention.
So were the general secretaries of Cosatu's biggest unions lying to the media and the nation on Sunday? Or perhaps they wrongly assumed what was going to be the issue and things happily turned out differently. So much so that all discussions were concluded and everyone went home a day early. Possibly, in the parallel universe.But in Cosatu House this week, the meeting on Monday was marked by fierce exchanges between the factions wanting to have Vavi put on special leave and those backing him. The faction in Vavi's corner motivated for a special congress in the hope that the delegates representing the mass membership would in turn vote out Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini. On Tuesday, the meeting stalled as no productive discussions could take place in the hostile atmosphere. One of the issues of contention was Vavi's tweets, one of which states that it has been three months since he "called on anyone to produce evidence that I or my family benefited in sale or purchase of Cosatu buildings".
The atmosphere was so heated in the full CEC session on Tuesday that it had to adjourn and the secretaries of all the affiliate unions then met to chart a workable way forward. The decisions taken in this smaller meeting are what gave Cosatu's national office bearers some substance to present to the media.
According to the media statement read out by Vavi, the two facilitators appointed in February, Petrus Mashishi and Charles Nupen, would discuss the "problematic ideological, organisational and administrative issues" with the affiliate unions presidents and secretaries. It was also agreed an urgent political commission be convened on 6 June to prepare for a bilateral meeting with the SACP, an alliance summit in October and the alliance economic summit in July.
"The CEC emerged united around a resolve that the work of the federation must continue uninterrupted… Our determination to continue to organise and service our members, to grow our numbers, to listen carefully to our members, and to implement our campaigns remains unshaken," the statement read.
Dlamini said Vavi's status in Cosatu remained unchanged and he would not be restricted in any way. "There is no question that can arise about any of the leaders here… They have been elected at congress... They are not deterred or embargoed to perform their duties, including the general-secretary of the federation."
A special resolution adopted by the CEC, however, was what gave up the game.
Why would they adopt a special resolution on "unity and cohesion" if Cosatu had, well, unity and cohesion? And the main issue in the special resolution on unity and cohesion is a forensic audit to determine whether there was any impropriety in relation to the sale of the old Cosatu head office and the purchase and ownership of the new headquarters. So it would stand to reason that is the issue interfering with the "unity and cohesion" of Cosatu.
"The auditors from Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo will be handed the file that deals with the background to the sale and purchasing of the building, which forms part of the general secretary's submission. They will conduct a forensic investigation into the sale and purchase of the buildings based on this file and any other information that may be provided by affiliates. The auditors will conclude their report by the end of June 2013," the resolution reads.
But even then, the office bearers would not concede in the media briefing that it is in fact Vavi that is under investigation. They contended that the file he will submit to the auditors was Cosatu's record of the sale and purchase of the buildings, not a personal submission.
But under repeated questioning, Vavi resorted to his line of defence that anyone has evidence of wrongdoing against him, they should "bring it on".
"I've done absolutely nothing wrong as an individual," Vavi said. "If evidence against me is produced, I will do what I always ask people to do. I will walk. There won't be a hearing. There won't be a commission of inquiry."
Cosatu will convene another CEC by the second week of July to deal with all these outstanding issues.
Repeatedly in the media statement and during the briefing, the Cosatu office bearers lashed out at the media for running leaked information exposing the factional battles and projecting Cosatu as being at war with itself. Dlamini, however, acknowledged that the leaks were coming from within Cosatu but claimed that reports of deep divisions and paralysis of the federation were a media fabrication.
But how could the media not report on these issues when they began playing out in the Cosatu national congress in September last year in the full glare of the media? The criticism of Vavi was not unrestrained in those discussions at the congress, and has persisted since.
Cosatu has always wanted to project itself as the moral conscience of the nation, speaking out on corruption, social issues, inequalities in society and consistently calling for clean and good governance. It took the moral high ground in opposing the Protection of State Information Bill because of its restrictions on the media. How does it reconcile this image with wanting to mislead the public on its own state and expecting the media to gag itself not to report on the obvious conflict playing out in the federation?
Cosatu wants to give the impression that it is functioning normally and is not crippled by its problems, when all the processes and stopgap measures it has put in place for the next two months show that it is. In all likelihood, in the run-up to the next meeting in July, there will be a resurgence in the skirmishes, which will again expose the lie.
Cosatu was the one organisation that could be relied on to be transparent, candid and consistent. It has now surrendered that moral high ground.
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.