How the good life took Cosatu's eye off the ball.

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He is referring to the seven months he has spent in the purgatory of suspension from his official duties as general secretary of Cosatu. This is how long it has been since the union federation suspended him for having sex with a Cosatu employee in her office.

The details of the affair make for excruciating reading. There was kissing and cuddling, more kissing and cuddling, and finally, on January 25 last year, they took the next step. The employee claimed she was raped, but only after sending Vavi texts suggesting the rape charge would go away if he paid her millions.

In Vavi’s own words from July last year: “The truth is that, on that day, she came to my office at least three times for reasons related to work. We had intimately kissed in my office on each of those occasions. Round about midday in her office, I also kissed her, and that kissing eventually led to us making love. I did lock her office door, but only to ensure that no one else could come in.”

By the time he issued that statement, he was already taking on water. He was the subject of that mixture of displeasure and derision that society preserves for the mighty who have fallen. Finally, on September 14 last year, he was suspended to enable the federation to investigate the charges and bring him before a disciplinary committee.

Looking back, Vavi cannot find harsh enough words to describe his error of judgment. “I made a gross mistake. I felt that the mistake was just not defensible. It was a blunder of unimaginable proportions. It was wrong. It was indefensible. It was a bloody own goal. It’s an unexplainable, stupid error.”

Since the charges were instituted — perhaps even because of them — Cosatu has been deeply divided.

Vavi’s fundamental difference of opinion with, let’s call them the Cosatu establishment, was that he believed that trade unions were being sucked, slowly but surely, into the elite, creating greater and greater distance between their leadership and the workers they were supposed to represent.

When I speak to him, it is the day before the Soweto derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. “Go to the stadium tomorrow and you will see the boxes are full of Cosatu shop stewards.”

His analysis of how this occurred is straightforward enough. Cosatu was a victim of its own success. It won major legislative victories in the Labour Relations Act during the transition, but it also won victories “outside of the law”.

This gave rise to what he describes as “the phenomenon of the full-time shop steward”. Excused from normal work duties and given an office from which to run union affairs, shop stewards soon became an elite of their own.

It was, says Vavi, “a good thing”, but it had unintended consequences. “The occupation of shop steward suddenly offered real material benefits. A mine worker who used to go underground is now on the surface, waiting in an office for someone to lodge a grievance.”

Management quickly cottoned onto the value of cozying up to the union leadership. They were sucked into corporate responsibilities and got to have a say in procurement that affected workers. Catering contracts became the subject of lobbying. “The shop stewards are now unofficial tender boards. That’s why the tender providers take them out, pummel them with gifts.

“You get overseas trips, you get cars, you get a per diem. You get invited for dinner left, right and centre, so you never spend a cent of that per diem. Some are even being invited to go overseas and watch cricket and rugby.”

Once a duty done out of sacrifice, union leadership posts became a ticket to power and minor riches. Once there was a prize, there was competition for it and so factions developed and the scramble for leadership positions turned ugly. There were more prizes beyond the union such as the prospect of a slice of an empowerment deal, a seat in a provincial legislature or the national parliament, or even a cabinet post.

Known in left intellectual circles as “the sins of incumbency”, this grasping for the trappings of a middle-class life is said to be the key driver of factionalism and corruption that have riven the new elite.

The problem is that once enough of a gap has opened up between workers and their leaders, others step into the gap. Across the platinum belt in the past two years, the establishment National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) found itself rapidly displaced by the ragged populism of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

Once the unbreakable champion of the worker, the NUM found itself scrambling to re-establish credibility. It failed and has even been deregistered at some mines. “We attempted to respond because we could see that this thing that had visited the NUM will keep moving to that union, to that union, to that union,” he says.

There is a precedent for this selfdestructive path — the all-white Trade Union Council of South Africa (Tucsa), which operated in apartheid South Africa. “They were conservative, they loved the National Party and the government. They enjoyed everything. The white worker never appreciated that it was unsustainable. The danger is that if Cosatu doesn’t address the weaknesses I’m talking about, it will become another Tucsa,” says Vavi.

But can Vavi make it back to the centre stage? First he has to beat the charges against him in the federation, not to mention the scepticism of the public about his mores. Even if he achieves this, it is highly unlikely that a divided Cosatu will accept him back.

There is another path, which he could follow: he could emerge as the leader of the emerging left-wing socialist movement that Numsa has initiated. But when I ask him about this, his answer is vague.

There is something of the political platform in Vavi’s commentary. “What you see in Bekkersdal and what you see everywhere — the fact that we have 33 service-delivery protests a day — means that the ticking time bomb is beginning to explode. Some of our towns are surrounded by a ring of fire.”

What needs to be done is to find a way for these voices to speak loudly and clearly. “I call it building a people’s movement.”

But first Vavi must make it through the ring of fire. A fire that he lit with a passionate embrace in a Cosatu office.

  • Ray Hartley is a Rhodes University alumnus.