South Africa: Maverick targeted
Peter Manson reports on a case that has gripped the Johannesburg media
In a controversy that might have an air of familiarity for those who have followed the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party, Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), was last month publicly accused of raping a Cosatu employee at the confederation’s Johannesburg headquarters. The woman did not take her case to the police, but lodged an internal complaint of “sexual harassment” with Cosatu. A hearing was held on July 29, but was aborted after two hours when the woman withdrew her complaint. Not much more of what happened at the hearing beyond that is known (more on this below).
However, all this is of interest to the left in Britain not just for its superficial similarity with the ‘comrade Delta’ case. There are also major differences between the two. First of all, whereas Delta did merit a comment or two in several bourgeois newspapers, the allegation against comrade Vavi was headline news in the South African media for the best part of a week. That is because, unlike the SWP, Cosatu is a major political organisation in addition to being South Africa’s largest trade union centre, to which all the biggest unions are affiliated.
Its political role derives from its status as a member of the African National Congress-led tripartite alliance - the third member being the South African Communist Party. More than that, however, there is a very substantial overlap between all three organisations, with thousands of individuals, including very senior members, belonging to two of them or all three simultaneously. The overlap is particularly pronounced between Cosatu and the SACP, which is undoubtedly the largest ‘official’ Communist Party in the western world, now claiming no fewer than 170,000 members. Most of the top union leaders and Cosatu officials, including Vavi, are SACP members.
But here is the second major difference. Whereas comrade Delta enjoyed the support and protection of the SWP central committee, Vavi is regarded as a maverick by the SACP leadership. Vavi, who has been general secretary for 14 years, has been far too critical of the ANC and president Jacob Zuma - not to mention the SACP’s enthusiastic support for both - for the party’s liking. He has condemned the ANC for presiding over rampant corruption and has said that Cosatu’s support for the ANC in next year’s general election should not be regarded as a foregone conclusion - for the SACP tops that amounts to sacrilege. Furthermore, he has told SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande in no uncertain terms that he ought to give up his post as minister for higher education and instead concentrate on running the Communist Party (Nzimande is one of seven SACP government ministers).
For months comrade Vavi has been facing an internal campaign to silence and/or dislodge him. He faces charges of instigating a “political rupture”, mixed with allegations of “administrative impropriety” from senior Cosatu officials and SACP loyalists trying to unseat him. The impropriety is said to relate to the sale of the federation’s old building and purchase of a new headquarters - in other words, the loyalists have been attempting to turn the tables by implying that Viva himself is corrupt, to the extent that he has been lining his pockets at union members’ expense. The general secretary admits that Cosatu House was probably sold too cheaply, but strongly resents the implication that this was anything other than a miscalculation, for which others were also responsible.
The accusations of political disloyalty to ANC and SACP leaders seem to be much more well founded. For example, in a recent internal exchange he wrote: “We have referred to the SACP initially endorsing Gear [the Thatcherite Growth, Employment and Redistribution package introduced under Nelson Mandela in 1996] without suggesting the movement of a comma. Today, the SACP threatens to endorse a similar anti-worker, neoliberal offensive for so-called ‘strategic reasons’.”1
It is against this background that the accusations of serious sexual misdemeanour emerged. In the words of Ranjeni Munusamy, writing in the online The Daily Maverick, “The rape allegation is therefore manna from heaven for Vavi’s enemies. It exposed his infidelity and shattered his relatively clean public image. It undermined his stature as one of the few public figures with integrity, who the public has come to count on to speak truth to power and chief crusader against corruption and government failures.”2
It was in fact Vavi himself who made the allegations public, issuing a comprehensive information pack to the press as a pre-emptive measure, knowing the information was likely to leak out.
His story goes like this. Yes, he did indeed recruit the woman (who has not been named for legal reasons). He met her in 2012 when she was working on the South African Airways check-in desk in Johannesburg and was so “impressed” by her “efficiency” that he invited her to come and work for him. He also appears to have been “impressed” by her appearance, for their relationship at work soon became intimate. According to Vavi, this was restricted to “hugs and kisses” until one day in January this year, when he entered the Cosatu women’s office where she worked, locked the door and had intercourse with her for the first and last time.
He claims that their relationship was entirely consensual and that he and the secretary exchanged more than 400 text messages of an intimate nature both before and after that occasion. He has made many of them available, including several from the day when they had sex. She texted him in the evening to say: “That was not consensual”; and a short time later wrote: “Now I am starting to feel that you hired me merely based on my looks.” She added: “I am sorry if I gave you ideas.” And in another text she said: “I’m worried. Please tell me I don’t have a reason to, then I’ll let it go.” Vavi comments: “Her worry related to the issue of HIV” and he was at pains to reassure her on the question.
Vavi claims that shortly after the January incident the 26-year-old’s husband found out about them. This, he says, resulted in an email offering to take the matter no further if she was paid the sum of R2 million (£134,000). The email message stated: “This document serves as a written agreement that once my demands are met ... I will solemnly swear not to divulge any information regarding this matter.”
Later texts reveal that the woman told Vavi she had been approached by his detractors in Cosatu, who urged her to cooperate with them. In fact Vavi supporters have gone so far as to claim that Frans Baleni, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, “planted” the woman - rather unlikely, in view of the general secretary’s own admission as to how she came to be employed.
But the accusation casts a light on the growing divisions within the South African labour movement, centring on the relationship of Cosatu and the SACP to the ANC. The NUM is now one of the most ANC-loyal unions and partly as a result of this has failed to seriously support its platinum mineworker members in their grievances (it was platinum workers who were the victims of last year’s massacre at Marikana, when 34 miners were shot dead by police). Disillusionment with the NUM rose to such a pitch that tens of thousands of platinum workers left to join the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union - and now the NUM has lost its status as the largest Cosatu affiliate.
Vavi himself goes further than accusing loyalist unions like the NUM of setting him up: “For years now I have been dealing with consistent threats to my life, political assaults and efforts to destroy my contribution to the struggle of the working class and the poor in this country. Lately, as we all know, these efforts to destroy me have intensified. I am unable not to view this matter in the same light.”3 He had earlier claimed to have received threats hinting that he could be killed in a “car accident”; and in a radio interview last month he said he had been told last year by a member of South African state intelligence that “they’d come across a plot to poison me from the Iranian intelligence services”.4 The political connection between Iran and Vavi’s South African enemies is unclear.
As part of his counteroffensive, Vavi lodged a complaint of extortion with the police against the woman and her husband. As things stand, this is the only complaint that is still ‘live’, but this looks set to change very shortly. There is no doubt that there will now be a misconduct case brought against Vavi by top Cosatu officials. It is said that, when they meet on August 12, these SACP-influenced officials will call for a special sitting of the confederation’s executive committee to initiate disciplinary charges relating to misuse of Cosatu premises and abuse of recruitment procedures.
What has the SACP leadership been saying about all this? Well, officially not a word. The line is, this is Cosatu’s business and has nothing to do with us.
However, in a rally to mark the 92nd anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, Nzimande referred to the dispute: “Let’s be absolutely clear. The SACP is not backing any personalities or factions (alleged or real) within Cosatu. Yes, there are thousands of SACP members, many of them leaders, within the trade union movement. They are there in their own right. Those in leadership positions in unions are there because as communists they have won the trust of the workers. They have not been deployed from the outside. The SACP does not and will not meddle in the internal affairs of Cosatu.”
In an obvious attempt to respond to comrade Vavi’s accusations he went on: “The SACP does not want a tame, lame-duck, conveyor-belt federation. The SACP does not want a labour federation that’s afraid of ‘speaking truth’ to government or anybody else. But let’s be even clearer - we want a labour movement that goes well beyond the petty bourgeois, hyper-critical, NGO ambition of just speaking (or is it tweeting?) truth to government from the side lines.”5
In case you were wondering, one comrade who frequently engages in “tweeting” is a certain Zwelinzima Vavi.
While, however, the SACP is officially neutral on the Cosatu dispute, the leadership itself could be accused of being hypocritical, if not “hyper-critical”. Its lackeys on the ground have been pushing a very different line. Take Dominic Tweedie, the SACP’s number-one hack in the blogosphere, who runs several SACP-influenced email discussion lists. He says of Cosatu:
“… the senior person involved was the big boss of the organisation, the one who hires and fires, and who has admitted having sexual intercourse with this employee in the business premises. This is an impossible situation. What was this woman supposed to do? How was she going to reject the man, unless she was ready to lose her job? … There are no excuses that can make this tolerable.”
In another posting he bluntly states: “… the Vavi era at Cosatu is over. There is no possible rehabilitation for him as GS, and his personal rehabilitation, if it is possible, can only begin after he has walked away ...”
This, surely, is the real SACP line. Leaders like Nzimande would not dream of doing anything more than hinting about Vavi’s political criticisms - the real reason why they want rid of him - but, in the words of The Daily Maverick journalist quoted above, the rape/sexual harassment allegations are “manna from heaven”.
None of this is to understate the seriousness of allegations of rape - especially when we are talking about South Africa, which faces “a globally unprecedented problem of violence against women and girls”, according to the Medical Research Council.6 Estimates for the frequency of rape in the country vary from one every 11 minutes to one every 26 seconds. There are, of course, huge numbers of unreported attacks, but, whichever statistics you use, South Africa is undoubtedly the rape capital of the world.
In fact earlier this week, on August 6, justice minister Jeff Radebe (an SACP member, as it happens) announced the revival of a system of dedicated courts dealing exclusively with sexual offences. At least 22 such courts will be opened this year alone.
We pointed out in relation to the SWP that comrade Delta should long ago have resigned from membership of the organisation until such a time as he was able to clear his name. The SWP leadership should have done its utmost to get him to follow that course. We cannot have such serious accusations hanging over working class leaders, which can only serve to weaken and undermine the organisations they head.
The same principle ought to have applied to Cosatu and Vavi - the general secretary should have stood down when the allegations surfaced until he was cleared. Of course, it would have been a very brief departure, since the comrade no longer stands accused of either rape or sexual harassment following the Cosatu hearing.
Talking of which, no detailed report of the hearing has been issued by anyone, as far as I know, so it is not known what led the woman to drop her complaint. Vavi has said that she was unable to answer certain questions put to her, but we do not know what these questions were or the manner in which they were asked.
2. The Daily Maverick July 29: www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2013-07-29-vavi-and-the-perilous-cocktail-of-politics-sex-and-conspiracy.
3. July 29 media statement.