OPINION: Can Vavi seize the working class vote?
It might sound like an April Fool's joke, but Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini would have us believe that 31 out of 32 central executive committee (CEC) members voting in favour of Zwelinzima Vavi's dismissal is a sign of "unity" in the federation. The ANC, on the other hand, seems not to be as confident that all will be well with Vavi cut loose and able to agitate outside the alliance. But it could also be a clever move by the ANC to look like the voice of reason in an effort to keep workers sympathetic to Vavi onside. If Vavi is to be the next big thing in South African politics, he needs to move on from his head butting with Cosatu's leaders and take on those who masterminded his downfall.
Remember when Zwelinzima Vavi, like the newly announced The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, was in trouble for his tweets? That was two years ago, when Vavi was suspended for bringing Cosatu into disrepute for having sex with a co-worker at the federation's head office. Despite being in the dog box pending a disciplinary hearing, Vavi continued to tweet and speak publicly about the alleged conspiracy against him and on current issues. This infuriated Cosatu and alliance leaders, who believed he was ill-disciplined and should be muzzled.
Already, then, the rage against Vavi was substantial, with the irritation with his outspokenness and criticism of the Zuma administration having started in 2009. The fallout began when Vavi spoke out against ministers in President Jacob Zuma's first Cabinet, including his former close friend and comrade Blade Nzimande, splashing out on luxury vehicles at taxpayers' expense. Suddenly Vavi was no longer the strong ally, able to marshal Cosatu's membership and powerful voice behind the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP). He was an agitator against the power elite.
By the time of the Cosatu 11th national congress in September 2012, there was a concerted effort from a faction in Cosatu, coaxed along by SACP and ANC leaders, to remove Vavi from his position. But Vavi's popularity, together with the fact that they did not have a strong alternate candidate to take him on, ensured that Vavi retained his position as general secretary.
A few months later, Vavi's dalliance with a junior staffer at Cosatu would begin his downward spiral. When the woman laid a rape charge and a complaint with Cosatu, Vavi's enemies rejoiced. The rape charge was withdrawn but the complaint allowed Cosatu to institute disciplinary procedures against both Vavi and the woman. During his nine-month suspension, Vavi would not lie low but continued to tweet and discuss Cosatu issues on public platforms.
This time around, Vavi's enemies are determined to shut him down completely, with no prospect of his returning to his post and no latitude to use Cosatu platforms to maintain his currency.
On Tuesday, Cosatu's office bearers addressed a media briefing and detailed the list of offences that led to the CEC voting to dismiss Vavi. These included his failure to attend CEC meetings, his refusal to co-operate with the auditors investigating allegations of financial impropriety against him, dividing unions by addressing unconstitutional meetings, using Cosatu resources to service the expelled metalworkers union Numsa, and meeting with people who have been suspended or dismissed for corruption by Cosatu affiliate unions.
Cosatu deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali said Vavi was guilty of breaching several sections of Cosatu's code of conduct, including failure to perform his duties, the use of the federation's property, assets and resources, ill discipline and through conflicts of interest.
"The general secretary has in the recent past abused the trust given to him by the federation and workers affiliated to Cosatu unions, and he continues to do so with impunity which culminated to the unauthorised press conference of 29th March 2015. This rebellious conduct has brought the federation into disrepute," Ntshalintshali said.
"He has in the process behaved in a manner which placed him above the organisation as an untouchable leader. He treated the organisation, including the Cosatu leadership collective and the entire membership, as his inferior subjects," he went on to say.
With so many charges stacked against Vavi, it is no wonder that only one person out of 32 people able to vote at the CEC meeting voted against his dismissal.
Cosatu is determined to isolate Vavi from its structures and members, and wants him to have a virtual pariah status. It has barred Vavi from speaking to any Cosatu structures and said affiliate unions should not create platforms for him to address members. "All staff members, particularly provincial secretaries of the federation and of our unions are instructed to desist from participating in comrade Zwelinzima Vavi-led activities."
Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini said those who continued to associate with Vavi would face action for transgressing the federation's code of conduct.
If this is not enough, outstanding allegations against Vavi are not being dropped but will continue to be pursued and referred to law enforcement agencies where necessary.
Why is the book being thrown at Vavi with such force? It is clear that Vavi's enemies in Cosatu and the alliance are aware he can inflict a lot of damage on the federation and its political allies. He knows where the bodies are buried and, like during his suspension, is unlikely to go quietly.
Vavi can appeal his expulsion at a Cosatu national congress later this year, but it appears that with the piling on of charges against him and the drive to push him into the wilderness, the federation's leaders want to detach him from his support base in the meantime. Vavi has already lost some momentum and his stature has diminished over the two years he has been embroiled in these battles.
Vavi's close relationship with the leaders of Numsa - deputy general secretary Karl Cloete and a large assembly of Numsa members who were present to support him at his media briefing on Sunday - means that he can automatically piggyback on their mission to create an alternate political platform and a rival trade union federation to Cosatu.
It is not clear how the rebel unions that suspended their participation in Cosatu after Numsa's expulsion will respond to Vavi's dismissal. Most did not attend this week's CEC meeting, although Dlamini says their representatives have been attending other Cosatu meetings.
Vavi's dismissal has had a somewhat muted public reaction so far, with no open expressions of anger or rebellion from workers. Perhaps it is because the dismissal was expected or because he has been dragging his heels on his plans for some time.
But the deeper issue is the political implications of Vavi's departure, and this is perhaps the reason the ANC is treading carefully. Zuma has expressed a desire that an alliance summit be convened to thrash out all the problems. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said on Monday it was unwise for Cosatu to have expelled Numsa and discouraged a similar move against Vavi.
This could mean that the ANC is worried about the worker constituency fragmenting further - some have already followed the Economic Freedom Fighters - and drawing political support away from the ruling party. But with Zuma and Mantashe speaking out against the Cosatu divisions, it could mean that the ANC can distance itself from the federation's battles and try and convince workers that their political home is still the ANC.
Numsa wants to attack worker support for the ANC and the alliance on several fronts, including the formation of a rival federation, through the United Front of left organisations and a new workers' party. Vavi has been stalling on joining their attack force but now has to make a decision on his future.
At his media briefing on Sunday, Vavi said he would be reaching out to workers in their struggles, to the 71 percent of whom are not organised into any unions and to the unemployed. But he has to do a lot of spadework to win back peoples' trust and confidence after being consumed with his own battles for over two years.
His detractors in the ANC, SACP and Cosatu will come at him hard to discredit his voice and his intentions. Next to Julius Malema, Vavi is arguably the biggest threat to the ANC's mass constituency as well as the network of the power elite. This is before he has any formal platform or organisation behind him.
So far, Vavi has been his own worst enemy, wasting time and trying to win peripheral battles within Cosatu that mean little to the rest of the world. The time for old wars, subtleties and innuendo are long gone. The majority of South African workers don't decide who to vest their support with by reading tweets. Vavi can only be the new champion of the working class if he takes up real worker issues and owns them.
If Vavi is to play in the big league, he has to be ready to go toe-to-toe with his former comrades-turned-enemies. An attack formation is no doubt being assembled to make sure that whatever his future plans, Vavi is not able to interfere with the power establishment. Zuma, Mantashe and Nzimande are always ahead of the game, while Vavi is still on the floor licking his wounds. The workers will only follow Vavi if he rebuilds his voice and appears to have staying power.
And he needs to make sure that the next time he is the subject of a ballot, more than one person votes for him.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.