Vavi plays Russian roulette

Since being suspended as Cosatu general secretary last month, Zwelinzima Vavi has not really given anybody the opportunity to miss his presence. Vavi is constantly in the news cycle through his press statements, his tweets, his legal battles and his public speeches. His perceived defiance and ill discipline is building anger and resentment in Cosatu, which could result in summary dismissal. Vavi has absolute confidence that a special Cosatu congress will rescue him and discard his enemies. It is a dangerous gamble, especially now that the ANC heavies have moved in.

When Zwelinzima Vavi decided to address the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) political school on Tuesday, it could be assumed he had something earth shattering to say. After all, he knew that he had already earned the ire of Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini and other federation leaders by speaking at a Numsa strike last week, which they said was a violation of his suspension conditions. To speak on the union platform again, this time while the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) was in progress, could only have meant that either Vavi had something to say that would break the impasse or he wanted to provoke the federation to expel him.

But other than to keep talking in defiance of Cosatu, it is not clear now what exactly Vavi's game plan is. Vavi was apparently addressing the Numsa event as "a friend and neighbour" of the union's late general secretary Mbuyiselo Ngwenda, to whom the political school is dedicated. When he addressed striking Numsa workers last week, he used a similar excuse saying he was doing so in a personal capacity.

The problem is that the contents of Vavi's address were not just about being a neighbour to Numsa's deceased leader. It had everything to do with the current crisis in Cosatu, the position of the federation in the alliance and his own troubles stemming from his suspension.

Vavi's suspension, which resulted from a sexual encounter with a subordinate at the Cosatu offices, has already triggered a messy court battle pitting affiliate unions against each other and the federation leadership. Vavi had lodged his own urgent court application to set aside his suspension, arguing that the decision of a special CEC last month was unconstitutional. But Vavi would know that while he did not agree with the CEC decision, it remains valid until overturned by the court. So by speaking on issues pertaining to Cosatu, on a union platform, he was once again handing ammunition to his enemies and pointing at where to shoot him.

There is no possible way that Vavi's detractors in Cosatu will not read his comments at the Numsa political school as provocation and an attempt to escalate the crisis in the federation. Vavi said Cosatu should remain an "independent, fighting, campaigning organisation" and should not hand the ANC a "blank cheque" in next year's elections.

Vavi also said that Cosatu leaders should not serve on the ANC's national executive committee (NEC). "It is about a principle guaranteeing the independence of the trade movement. It is also about eliminating any confusion," he was quoted by Sapa.

He had refused to stand for a position on the NEC at three consecutive ANC conferences. "[This is] not because I am a counter revolutionary, or oppositionist, as everyone is saying, but because I felt that you have to at least spare the office of the general secretary or president."

"Those two should continue to speak only wearing the face and hat of the mandate they have received from the union," Vavi said. This is a direct swipe at Dlamini who was elected onto the ANC NEC at the Mangaung conference in December.

Vavi said he would not allow his detractors to silence him and he would continue to speak out as a "class-conscious cadre". Vavi came out in support of a special Cosatu congress to deal with the crisis in the federation. Numsa initially proposed that a special congress be held and is now being supported by eight other unions. The Cosatu constitution states that a special congress can be convened if seven or more unions petition for it.

This issue is currently being discussed at the CEC meeting underway at Cosatu House. It is not known whether Vavi was deliberately trying to aggravate his detractors in that meeting by lobbying outside and taking pot shots at the Cosatu leadership. It certainly could not have made it easier for those trying to defend him and spare him from further sanction. It is not as if the atmosphere in the CEC meeting needs to be any more tense and fractious, with bouts between warring factions crippling previous meetings and a court battle over Vavi's suspension already in the mix.

Vavi and his allies seem to have placed all their eggs in one basket: the special congress. By their calculation, if they win that battle at the CEC, they have won the war, as the delegates at the special congress would tilt in their favour. Because Vavi is extremely popular among ordinary Cosatu members, the assumption is that he would get more votes than any candidate the opposing faction put up to run against him for the position of general secretary. The assumption also goes that Dlamini would be voted out as Cosatu president to punish him for the treatment meted out to Vavi.

It should be recalled that the reason the vote was avoided for these two positions at last year's Cosatu congress was that it would have definitely caused a division in the federation. By opting to do this now, the consequences would be the same: Cosatu would be divided and the crisis would be far from resolved. The unions opposed to Vavi, including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and teachers union Sadtu, would stage an enormous fight back and there is no guarantee that things would go according to the Vavi and Numsa script.

Last September's Cosatu congress was not exactly marching to the Numsa tune, and although the union has now overtaken NUM as the biggest affiliate, how things pan out on the congress floor cannot be taken for granted. A lot has happened in the last year that has caused turbulence and uncertainty in Cosatu, and in labour relations generally. There is no way of knowing to how all this is impacting on Cosatu members on the shop floor.

It is also not known how much of the noise Vavi has been making in the media and on Twitter has been reaching the ordinary Cosatu members who could be deciding his fate. Numsa is clearly in his corner already, so it seems rather strange for him to address two of their events two weeks in a row. If Vavi's strategy is to lobby publicly, then he needs to get around more. If he wants to reach the workers, he needs to go to them quietly and not feel the need to tweet his every move and thought.

But if Vavi intends to get himself expelled or to force Cosatu to its knees, then he is right on track. The strategy of outing the sexual indiscretions of other Cosatu leaders in the media in order to justify his own would then also makes sense. The Mail & Guardian reported last week that Vavi's supporters are now accusing his opponents in Cosatu's leadership of selective morality by hiding "worse" sexual indiscretions of their own, including fathering children out of wedlock with junior staff. This has infuriated those named and made them determined to get rid of Vavi.

On Tuesday the ANC announced that a high-powered task team has been appointed by the party's national working committee to help Cosatu to navigate through its problems. The team is headed by ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and includes general secretary Gwede Mantashe (both of whom are former NUM general secretaries), chairwoman Baleka Mbete, national treasurer Zweli Mkhize and four members of Cabinet. It is clear that the ANC is worried about the impact of the Cosatu crisis on the party and particularly on the 2014 election campaign.

However, there is nothing in the statement that suggests that the ANC intends to broker a deal between the warring factions. What it wants to do is simply work to settle things down in the federation, and that could be done by ejecting those they perceive to be troublemakers.

Considering how the ANC has dealt with troubles in the ANC Youth League and provinces like Limpopo and the North West, Vavi and his allies had better watch their next steps. Vavi's supporters are already casting doubt on the ANC process, saying that some of the task team members like Mantashe have taken sides and therefore cannot be impartial arbiters.

The Cosatu leadership will announce the CEC decisions on Thursday. The only certainty is that Vavi is set to remain in the news for the foreseeable future, and that the federation is nowhere near a resolution to its crisis.

This column appeared in Daily Maverick.