By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
The crisis that has rocked the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) over the last year has frequently been portrayed as revolving around a scandal involving the organization’s General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. The principal leader of the largest labor federation in South Africa, Vavi was accused of conducting an inappropriate relationship with a female employee of the organization. Although Vavi publicly apologized on several occasions, he was suspended for several months, only to have been recently reinstated by an act of a South African court.
The Vavi case, however, is not the main cause of the COSATU crisis. The underlying causes go back to the early days of Nelson Mandela’s administration and the decision of his government to embark on economic policies that were contrary to those originally promised by the African National Congress in its fight with the apartheid regime. The ANC had advanced the need for the nationalization of key industries and the establishment of major social development programs.
In 1996 the government suddenly reversed course and instituted a new economic program called Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR). Despite the name, it was a program that conformed to the sorts of economic biases very common in the 1990s (and today), including privatization, downsizing, and elimination of trade barriers. South African workers were hurt very badly by this change and a struggle began to emerge within COSATU over how the labor unions should respond to anti-worker policies that their allies–the ANC–were advancing.
Over the last several years, General Secretary Vavi has become an outspoken critic of the ANC-led government of Jacob Zuma, particularly on matters of economic policy. Events became more intense when striking miners from a union that was not affiliated with COSATU, were gunned down at the Marikana mines in 2012. The horror of this act sent shock waves throughout South Africa, including but not limited to COSATU. Several unions that have been affiliated with COSATU began to raise questions about not only what had happened, but also the role of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM, a COSATU affiliate) in the tragedy.
As criticisms of the Zuma administration heightened, and as Vavi seemed to be a leading critic, a lineup within COSATU emerged that included unions that saw themselves as defenders of the ANC and the alliance that has existed between the ANC and COSATU. In that context, the allegations against Vavi have little to do with the actual facts of the incident. Vavi apologized repeatedly for inappropriate conduct, yet the anti-Vavi forces in COSATU saw this as their chance to remove him from the scene and to consolidate COSATU as an uncritical ally of the Zuma administration and the ANC.
While it is the case that Vavi has been, at least for now, restored to office and the ANC is helping to facilitate discussions between Vavi and his detractors, the focus on the individual misses the larger situation. To what extent will COSATU see itself as reaching out to the growing chorus of social movements critical of the ANC’s economic policies, or will COSATU reject such critics and hold fast to its relationship to the ANC? This will not be answered through one action or decision but we shall see it play out over the coming months of struggle.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the former president of TransAfrica Forum. He is a racial justice, labor and global justice writer and activist. Follow him on Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.