How Cosatu lost the PR war & why Vavi was absent
The first thing that was announced at the Cosatu media briefing on Tuesday was that general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi would not be there because he was "consulting his lawyers". Later Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini clarified that Vavi had gone to sign "court papers". The Cosatu office bearers denied a question from Daily Maverick whether Vavi had informed them that he would not be at the briefing because he did not support the decision to expel Numsa. Unfortunately for them, journalists are in possession of a letter from Vavi to Dlamini and Cosatu affiliates stating expressly why he refused to attend the media briefing. Did you really think we wouldn't find out, Mr Dlamini?
Cosatu President S'dumo Dlamini should really read Sun Tzu's The Art of War. One of the popular quotes by the ancient Chinese military tactician is: "If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss".
Dlamini ought to know Zwelinzima Vavi and Irvin Jim by now. There is no way his former comrades would allow him to push them out of the federation without hitting him where it hurts most.
Dlamini is a very different character from the two firebrands. He is docile and no street fighter. He likes to be seen as the voice of reason and the only rational player in the game. He tries by all means to show that he stays within the confines of the Cosatu constitution and abides by the rules of the federation. He is a nurse by profession and has the bedside manner that goes with it.
So to be exposed as deceiving the public will really rattle him. Obviously, Vavi's absence from a media briefing addressed by Cosatu office bearers was always going to raise eyebrows, especially when the expulsion of metalworkers' union Numsa was the main issue. The six office bearers, including Vavi, met for several hours on Monday to discuss the dramatic events of the past week.
On Wednesday last week, eight unions led by Numsa addressed a media briefing in a show of force against the intention to expel the metalworkers' union. On Thursday, Numsa and Cosatu faced off in court again, with Numsa trying to interdict the federation from arbitrarily expelling it. On Friday the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) held a special meeting that lasted over 16 hours, culminating in a vote to expel Numsa. On Sunday, Numsa came back fighting, vowing "This fight is not over!" On Monday, seven affiliates aligned to Numsa announced they were suspending participation in Cosatu due to the "politically motivated" hit on the metalworkers' union. Later, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe told the media the differences in Cosatu were not irreconcilable, and there should be continued engagement.
On Tuesday would be the first time the Cosatu national officer bearers would face the public after all these events. They filed in, sans Vavi, and read out a meek 1,925-word statement, which for some reason sketched out in detail the conclusions and recommendations of the failed ANC task team intervention. The most dramatic development in South African politics in recent years, the expulsion of the 340,000-member metalworkers' union, Cosatu's biggest affiliate, was announced as such: "Indeed, Numsa made a presentation to the CEC and the CEC discussed the presentation and came to a conclusion that Numsa be expelled."
It was read out by Cosatu deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali more like an airline safety instruction guide than a major news event. The statement ended with a rather optimistic declaration: "One thing is certain; the federation will emerge from the current challenges even stronger, without sacrificing an inch of our policies and principles." (Pass the oxygen mask, please.)
The intention was clearly to take the drama down a few notches and create the impression that all was well in Cosatu after experiencing a tiny bump in the road. That, in fact, has consistently been the position of Dlamini - get rid of the rabble-rousers and there would be unity and cohesion in Cosatu.
But during the question session, the Zen mask slipped and Dlamini's pent-up emotion was exposed. Unable to lash out at Vavi or the Numsa leaders, he launched a bizarre attack on Cosatu's former leaders Jay Naidoo and Mbhazima Shilowa. In response to a column by Naidoo in Daily Maverick, and interviews by him and Shilowa expressing disappointment in Cosatu's decision to expel Numsa in the way they did, Dlamini said: "Get off Cosatu, stay away from Cosatu!"
Dlamini said although Shilowa had left the ANC to form the Congress of the People (Cope), he still had the audacity to talk about the "end of era" and say "Cosatu is dead". "A new era is beginning too, we are here to lead the federation under these difficult times." Dlamini said as founding general secretary, Naidoo should have offered his assistance to mediate the problems rather than writing open letters to Cosatu.
"In the sense that you are not helping us, stay away," he said.
This was Dlamini's first big strategic blunder.
All week, Numsa had been driving the news agenda, and despite Irvin Jim's penchant for fiery rhetoric, he has been winning the PR war. Jim, together with the Numsa leadership and their allies in the seven unions, have successfully projected themselves as the ones who fought by all means to prevent the Cosatu split. Dlamini and National Union of Mineworkers general secretary Frans Baleni have come across as the slayers, on a mission to axe Numsa by any means possible, with big shadowy figures in the ANC and SA Communist Party egging them on.
The end result is that history will record Dlamini as the man under whose leadership the 29-year-old worker organisation was forced to its knees.
Tuesday was Dlamini's chance to recover ground. But his first instinct was to attack people who have nothing to do with the current fight, and under whose leadership Cosatu was in its heyday. In their interviews, Naidoo and Shilowa were expressing their sorrow over Cosatu's fall - which they are entitled to do. There was no hysteria or falsehoods in what they said, and the public has been in general agreement that Cosatu should not have been surrendered for political purposes.
So all Dlamini achieved with his extraordinary attack was to shift public opinion even further away from him and his faction.
The second blunder was not to give an explanation as to what was so untenable about Numsa being in Cosatu that they had to be booted out. The primary charge against Numsa - they face five in total - appears to have been poaching of members from other sectors and thus breaching the one union, one industry principle. But it is obvious that Numsa's politics and ideological conflict with the ANC and SACP was the underlying cause. Dlamini and co did not explain why what Numsa is doing is so bad for the workers and for the country. This makes people naturally suspicious about their motives and the political agenda behind them.
Cosatu's third blunder was not to think through how to handle Vavi's absence from the meeting. It would have been naïve not to anticipate that that would have been a major point of curiosity for the media. The Cosatu leadership should have come up with an explanation that would stick. An even better idea would have been to tell the truth - that Vavi refused to attend.
When Daily Maverick asked them pointedly to confirm whether Vavi had informed them that he would not attend the media briefing because he did not support the decision to expel Numsa, Ntshalintshali's response was "No comment." That should have been a clue that the cat was already out of the bag. Instead, both Dlamini and Ntshalintshali explained that Vavi was meeting with his lawyers regarding the defamation suit undertaken by the Cosatu staff member whom he had sex with last year.
Another clue was that the media was already in possession of the letter from Cosatu to Numsa, formally informing them of their expulsion. The letter was signed, not by Vavi as it should have been, but by Ntshalintshali. The explanation given was that Vavi was caught up and Ntshalintshali had simply been available to do it.
Vavi has been scarce since Numsa's expulsion, but from his tweets and an interview with PowerFM, he was clearly extremely upset by what happened. With all the questions around his own future, there would have to be interpretations around what he says and does. And clearly it is only a matter of time before he finally makes the leap.
But for some reason, Dlamini thought he could cover all this up. He told the media that they had been in a meeting with Vavi earlier in the day, where they were laughing on some issues and felt "quite sad" about others. He said the relationship among the office bearers were defined by Ubuntu, and he and Vavi had a "comrade" and "collegial" relationship.
When journalists received copies of Vavi's letter to Dlamini, the general secretaries of affiliate and provincial secretaries, the façade came tumbling down.
"There is no doubt that the federation is going through the most painful period in its entire life," Vavi says in the two-page letter. "I believe that there will be no winners if we allow the federation to fracture permanently."
Vavi explains that he had expressed his opposition in two CEC meetings to the intention to expel Numsa from Cosatu. "I stand by those views and the appeals I made at that time for a calm and reasoned response to the challenges we face. I still hold this view, and appeal again for a rational discussion." He said the decision to expel Numsa "could destroy what we have jointly built for so many years".
"From that point of view I plead with you to understand that I will not be able to defend a decision that I honestly believe is contradicting and undermining organised workers and broader working class unity, a decision that will have momentous implications for years to come."
"These are the reasons why I have decided not to participate in the [national officer bearers] press conference of this afternoon or to conduct interviews or participate in any activity that will exacerbate division further, or will further jeopardise any chance of the federation committing suicide by jumping off the cliff," Vavi concludes.
Game, set and match, Vavi.
Throughout the media briefing, Dlamini also battled to explain why he was not violating the Cosatu constitution by not convening a special national congress, as he is obliged to do. But he has clearly been stalling on the issue to save his own skin. Contentious issues such as this, and the status of Cosatu's second deputy president Zingiswa Losi, who has retained her position despite being booted out by Numsa, have been continuously deferred to future CEC meetings. Another special CEC is apparently to be called in a few days to deal with these outstanding matters.
Perhaps the biggest strategic mistake by Dlamini and his faction is that they alienated the Numsa membership in their effort to punish the leadership. It is clear that the guns were out for the Numsa top leadership. But what Cosatu, and its backers in the ANC and SACP, did was hand over 340,000 members to Jim and his crew to do what they want with them. There was no attempt to reach out to the broad Numsa membership to say: "Stay, your home is still in Cosatu".
The Cosatu leaders also did not reach out to the leaders and members of the seven unions who sided with Numsa and are halfway out the door themselves. There was no mention of them in the statement, apparently because they have not formally informed Cosatu that they are suspending participation in the federation. By Cosatu disregarding this entire constituency, they are also surrendering them to Numsa and whatever plans they have for the future for a new federation and political movement.
It is rather odd that the perceived victors in the Cosatu fight can be so much on the back foot, while those who have been expelled and on the way out look like the rational guys.
Another piece of Sun Tzu's advice Dlamini should have heeded: "The expert in battle moves the enemy, and is not moved by him." Vavi and Jim are not only moving Dlamini, they are outmaneuvering him - and winning the PR war in specular style.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.