Last of Zuma’s Main Critics Sidelined as Vavi Suspended

South African President Jacob Zuma has seen off the last of his main critics within the ruling party’s political alliance with labor unions, consolidating his power before next year’s elections.

Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, was suspended on Aug. 14 while he is being investigated for having an extra-marital affair with an employee he hired. Vavi, 50, has been a vocal opponent of the African National Congress’s proposals to relax labor laws and impose tolls on highways, while also accusing it of not doing enough to combat poverty and corruption.

“Zuma has effectively captured Cosatu,” Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst at the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, said in a phone interview yesterday. Vavi’s suspension “strengthens the Zuma faction within the ANC. The whole ANC has been Zumafied.”

Vavi’s sidelining leaves Cosatu, which says it has a membership of 2.2 million, under the control of S’dumo Dlamini, the labor group’s president and a Zuma ally.

Zuma, 71, has consolidated his power base since defeating his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe to win a second term as ANC leader in December and after securing most posts on the party’s national executive committee for his allies.

Critical Voice

Tokyo Sexwale, who aborted a bid to challenge Zuma for leadership of the ANC in 2007, was dropped from the cabinet on July 9. The ANC has also expelled Julius Malema, the former ANC youth wing leader and a vociferous Zuma critic, and fired Cassel Mathale as the party’s leader in Limpopo province after he led a faction that opposed Zuma’s re-election.

“Vavi’s downfall means that critical voice against Zuma’s government would be silenced,” Brutus Malada, a political analyst at the Pretoria-based Center for Politics and Research, said in a phone interview yesterday. While other internal ANC critics refrain from making their views public, “with Vavi, you seemed to find a person who was agitating for change,” he said.

Formed in 1985, Cosatu played a leading role in the fight against white minority rule, and has been part of the ANC-led ruling alliance with the South African Communist Party since the first multiracial elections in 1994.

While Vavi helped Zuma wrest control of the party from former president Thabo Mbeki in 2007, he hasn’t held back in criticizing the government as it faced corruption scandals and protests by poor, black township residents against a lack of housing and jobs.

‘Grave Injustice’

Vavi has instructed his lawyers to challenge his suspension, which he described today as part of a campaign to divide and destroy Cosatu.

“I believe a grave injustice is being visited on me,” he told reporters in Johannesburg. “What will be investigated when I have admitted to having done wrong and apologized publicly? If I were to resign and hand over victory to the people standing in the queue of corruption, I will be doing injustice to people who elected me.”

Vavi’s supporters sang and danced after the press conference, hoisting him onto their shoulders.

Cosatu’s fortunes have already been waning, with its 21 affiliates shedding members due to the emergence of new unions and an unemployment rate of 25.6 percent. Clashes last year between members of the National Union of Mineworkers, a Cosatu-affiliate, and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union over the right to represent workers at Lonmin Plc and other mining companies resulted in strikes and the worst violence in the industry since the end of apartheid.

Unions Split

“Cosatu is becoming a shadow of its former self,” Robert Schrire, a politics professor at the University of Cape Town, said in a phone interview yesterday. “It’s becoming divided within to the point of incoherence. The ANC still is the only game in town. It’s quite clear to the ANC that it doesn’t need Cosatu or its organizing capacity.”

The ANC has won more than 60 percent support in every election since taking power under Nelson Mandela in 1994, and has rallied support by extending access to welfare grants, housing and electricity. The next national election must be held by July next year.

An ex-mineworker, Vavi has served as Cosatu’s general secretary since 1999, and was re-elected to the post unopposed at a federation conference in 2009.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, Cosatu’s largest affiliate with about 300,000 members, opposed Vavi’s suspension and said today it’s seeking legal advice on how to proceed.

Cosatu has been “completely paralyzed,” Irvin Jim, Numsa’s general secretary, told reporters in Johannesburg today. “Independent of whether comrade Zwelinzima Vavi remains the general secretary of Cosatu or not, there is an irreparable ideological rupture in the federation. This rupture is fundamentally between those who want a toothless Cosatu” and those who don’t.

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