analysisBy Greg Nicolson
In its fight to save suspended Cosatu Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi, the National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa) pinned its hopes on a special national congress, where disciplinary charges against him could be dropped with the support of the wider membership. That's not gonna happen, said Cosatu leaders on Tuesday. Cosatu's leadership, under President Sidumo Dlamini, have once again thrown down the gauntlet.
After a special central executive committee (CEC) meeting, Cosatu was clear on the issue of a special national congress (SNC). “The CEC raised problems which a SNC would cause affiliates, including financial constraints, a full programme of other events, election work,” read Dlamini on Tuesday. “In this context the meeting decided to decline the request for a SNC.” It was reported on Tuesday that nine unions supporting Vavi boycotted the CEC meeting.
“We are yet to see any union that said, ‘Yes, we did boycott the meeting.’ So there’s no boycott so far as we are concerned,” said Dlamini. He claims there were enough members of the CEC present to form a quorum and some of the nine unions who did not attend are not in good standing, meaning they would not have had a say in the decision.
The nine Cosatu affiliates, led by Numsa, calling for Vavi’s reinstatement said in January, “If the special delegate congress is not called by the end of March, we will have no option other than to pursue the matter through the courts, and to mobilise our members to convene the special national delegate congress to defend our beloved federation.” They believe it is against Cosatu’s constitution not to hold the meeting after a third of the 19 affiliates made requests.
“No, Cosatu cannot do that. We cannot undermine the constitution of the federation,” said Dlamini, when asked if Cosatu is breaking its own rules.
“What the CEC did yesterday is in line with Cosatu’s constitution and the president understands what is expected of him and will continue to execute that mandate,” added Dlamini, who criticised the media for taking Numsa’s stance on the issue.
Speaking to media at the Cape Town Press Club, Numsa General Secretary Irvin Jim said there’s no way Cosatu can reject a special congress it should have launched one within two weeks after enough members made their request. The federation’s constitution doesn’t require the president to convene a conference within 14 days of the application, as some unionists claim, but it empowers the president to set a date for a congress, giving affiliates 14 days’ notice.
Denying a special congress is a middle finger to Numsa, Vavi and Jim. Cosatu’s constitution states, “The President must call a special NC if – the CEC passes a resolution calling for the meeting; or not less than 1/3 of the affiliates in good standing submit a written request to the General Secretary for the attention of the President calling for the meeting.” Cosatu cannot deny the unions a special congress, unless Dlamini has a technicality up his sleeve.
Why, then, was the application rejected? Speaking on Tuesday, Jim said the ANC and SA Communist Party were attacking the poor, were in a lucrative alliance with big business, and had failed to improve the economy. Basically, the ANC’s election manifesto is a joke, according to Jim. “There is very little correlation between ANC election manifestos and reality,” he said, after listing the party’s failures. At its own special congress in December, Numsa decided not to support the ANC’s 2014 campaign.
According to Dlamini, “Numsa is in direct conflict with Cosatu’s policies in many ways”, one of them being its increasing membership in mining areas, which breaks one of Cosatu’s fundamental rules – one industry, one union. It also wants to march on to Cosatu House during the next CEC sitting. “Numsa should be suspended or expelled but [the CEC] still says, ‘Write to them and ask why Cosatu should not suspend or expel you when you are breaking all the house rules of the federation.’” The union now has to provide reasons why it shouldn’t be suspended or expelled.
Cosatu’s Deputy General Secretary and Acting General Secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali also slammed Numsa on Tuesday. “No organisation will accept anarchy. No organisation will allow people not to accept the constitution. All organisations, [even if] it is the Italian Mafia, they have rules,” he said. “If this is allowed, it will end Cosatu. There will be no Cosatu.”
Vavi, meanwhile, has more immediate concerns. A report from law firm Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo (SNG) that was tabled in the CEC found that the price Cosatu’s property body paid for its new building was inflated. It also found a conflict of interest in Cosatu doing business with a company, VMS, that employs Vavi’s stepdaughter and a conflict of interest between VMS and Vavi’s wife.
Dlamini wouldn’t say how far Vavi’s disciplinary hearing had progressed, but said the CEC denied Vavi’s request to cover his legal costs.
In a statement on Tuesday, Vavi’s spokesperson John Dludlu said he hadn’t seen the report, but said it’s “curious” that some of the findings are already being made public. “On the face of it, these actions appear to demonstrate bias, unprofessional conduct and a misunderstanding of and lack of appreciation for the seriousness of the matter at hand and the implications thereof. We hope the forensic firm wasn't strong-armed into this course of action by his detractors,” said Dludlu.
Vavi is maintaining his innocence and Numsa maintains it has a constitutional right to go to a special congress. But regardless of whether they’re right, their opposition is currently in charge of Cosatu House while Vavi and Jim are outside, screaming.
Both matters – the NSC and Vavi’s disciplinary charges – will likely end up being challenged in court. If Dlamini and the CEC are found to have violated the Cosatu constitution, there could be serious repercussions. But by then the national and provincial elections should have passed. Cosatu will have limited the damage Jim and Vavi can cause the ANC. Numsa will be on its way to creating its own party. By then, Vavi may have finally realised that some fights you just can’t win.