Zuma Critic Vavi Suspended as Labor Leader After Affair

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the nation’s largest labor grouping, suspended General-Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, a critic of President Jacob Zuma who had an extra-marital affair with a colleague.

Cosatu leaders met yesterday and agreed “to ask both the general-secretary and the staff member to attend disciplinary hearings,” S’dumo Dlamini, the federation’s president, told reporters in Johannesburg today. “The general-secretary and the staff member have been placed on special leave, in the light of the nature and seriousness of the allegations.”

While Cosatu is in a political alliance with the ruling African National Congress, Vavi, 50, hasn’t shied away from criticizing the government for failing to tackle corruption and opposing its economic development plan. Cosatu’s 21 affiliate unions have been split on whether to oust Vavi.

“Would Vavi have faced a disciplinary hearing if he was a Zuma cheerleader?” Pierre de Vos, a law professor at the University of Cape Town, said in a phone interview today. “Not in a million years. They would have turned a blind eye to abuse. Vavi did do something that was problematic but Cosatu acted against him for purely politically expedient reasons.”

Zuma’s Critics

A woman hired by Vavi accused him of raping her, an allegation that was subsequently withdrawn at a July 29 internal Cosatu inquiry. While Vavi admitted to having sex with his subordinate at the federation’s head office in Johannesburg, he said their affair was consensual and she had demanded 2 million rand ($201,000) from him not to make it public.

“In my office -- packing my essentials -- clearing my desk,” Vavi said in a post on Twitter while Cosatu leaders were briefing reporters. “Will speak tomorrow or Saturday.”

Zuma, a polygamist who twice admitted to having extra-marital affairs, won an overwhelming victory for a second term as ANC leader in December. Several of his other opponents have also been sidelined, including Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who was ousted as the ANC’s deputy leader in December, and Julius Malema, who headed the party’s youth wing prior to his expulsion in March last year.

While Vavi’s suspension may strengthen Zuma, it weakens Cosatu and undermines its ability to campaign on behalf of the ANC in elections due to take place by July next year.

‘Weaker Force’

“More aggressive action against Vavi could split Cosatu and thereby fracture part of the ruling alliance,” Mark Rosenberg, an Africa analyst at New York-based Eurasia Group, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Either way, Cosatu emerges a weaker political force, less effective at campaigning for the ANC in 2014.”

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

The disciplinary hearings should be concluded by the time Cosatu leadership next meets on Sept. 16, Zingiswa Losi, the federation’s second deputy president, told reporters. The charges against Vavi have yet to be formulated, she said.

Cosatu’s affiliates have a combined membership of about 2.2 million. The South African Municipal Workers Union and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa have both issued statements in support of Vavi.

Numsa, Cosatu’s biggest affiliate, tried unsuccessfully to get yesterday’s meeting canceled.

Unions Split

The “meeting was not supposed to have happened because it was convened unconstitutionally,” Irvin Jim, the union’s general secretary said by phone today. “You can’t have a situation where you go to a meeting without knowing what will be discussed then get there and be bulldozed to accept a decision that has been taken.”

Dlamini denied the action taken against Vavi was politically motivated.

“There is no political conspiracy,” he said. “We urge our members, we urge leaders to be able to contend with the fact that our duty as leaders, as affiliates is to work internally to strengthen this federation.”

The South African Democratic Teachers Union suspended its president, Thobile Ntola, for giving Vavi a platform to address its members and telling journalists the union accepted his apology for having an affair, Johannesburg-based Mail & Guardian newspaper reported on Aug. 13, citing Ntola. Sadtu spokeswoman Nomusa Cembi said yesterday she was unable to comment on the matter.

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