Survey reveals suspended leader has massive grass-roots support.
Suspended Cosatu boss Zwelinzima Vavi is likely to win a battle for control of the union federation if it convenes a special congress to re-elect its leaders.
That’s according to a survey conducted last year by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry on behalf of Cosatu, which found that Vavi was the only leader of the federation who represented workers’ aspirations.
He is the only unionist who featured on a list of national leaders – which included Nelson Mandela, President Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema – who most represented the aspirations of those polled.
Interestingly, Vavi was popular with both members of the federation’s affiliates and non-Cosatu members.
The 2012 survey, which did not sample participants according to the size of their unions, featured 3 030 workers, the majority of them members of unions affiliated to Cosatu.
A pro-Vavi union leader said it was clear that Vavi is popular among workers on the shop floor.
“The whole thing (Vavi’s removal) is about leaders, not workers. That is why they would try to block the conference.
“It is only correct that workers be involved if there has to be a change of leadership,” he said.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has warned that convening a special Cosatu elective congress amid a crisis would deepen divisions within the federation.
The ANC leadership has set up its own task team to help unify its labour ally, which has fragmented further since its leadership suspended Vavi last month.
The eight-member intervention team, led by ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, is due to start its work in the next few days.
Both Mantashe and Ramaphosa have met Cosatu leaders in the past few weeks, but this has not yielded a truce.
Mantashe said Cosatu leaders should meet in seclusion and thrash out their differences.
“The worst thing (we can) do is go to a congress because we are fighting. Basically when you say so, you say: ‘Let’s fight.’
“To say: ‘Because we don’t agree, let’s go to a special congress,’ what you are saying is: ‘Go … fight it out. The faction that wins takes it all, and the factions that don’t win must disappear and collapse,’” Mantashe said.
Cosatu leaders will meet in November to discuss the request from eight affiliates for a special congress, a response to Vavi’s suspension after he admitted to having an affair with a junior female colleague.
Metal workers’ union Numsa is now Cosatu’s largest union, with more than 319 000 members. The unions that support Vavi account for 35% of Cosatu’s total membership of 2.2 million.
But unions on either side of the conflict are divided over his suspension.
It is not clear yet how successful the ANC task team will be – Numsa leaders have already accused the ANC of driving a wedge between Cosatu leaders.
Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini said the ANC team had not contacted them yet. He said they last met the ANC a few weeks ago to discuss Cosatu’s “challenges”.
A group of five labour stalwarts, led by former ministers Sydney Mufamadi and Alec Erwin, has also approached Cosatu to help mediate in the crisis.
The five-member team – which also includes ANC national executive committee member Enoch Godongwana and former unionists Makhulu Ledwaba and Mandla Gxanyana – will meet individual leaders in a bid to broker peace.
Cosatu has welcomed their intervention, as they are perceived by some to be neutral in the conflict.
“I think the former leaders will make a bigger impact than the serving ANC leaders. The main issue is to separate the organisation from any individual or individuals,” said a union leader who spoke anonymously.
Pro-Vavi unionists have told City Press it is too late for any external intervention, and said only a special congress would be able to save Cosatu now.
– Additional reporting by Dewald van Rensburg
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