South Africa’s ANC Labor Ally Expels Leader, Risking Split

The Congress of South African Trade Unions expelled its General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi in a move that may split the nation’s biggest labor federation and ally of the ruling African National Congress.

“His behavior has undermined all the efforts to achieve unity and cohesion in the federation as facilitated by the ANC,” Deputy General Secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali told reporters in Johannesburg on Tuesday. “The conduct of the general secretary constitutes gross misconduct.”

Vavi, 52, has led Cosatu for 16 years and is an outspoken critic of the ANC’s economic policies and alleged corruption under President Jacob Zuma. He has been at loggerheads with the leadership of Cosatu since it expelled its biggest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, which refused to support the ANC in elections last year. Vavi’s removal may cause Cosatu to break apart as unions that support him leave to form a rival federation.

“We are now looking at a very serious split in Cosatu,” Steven Friedman, director of the Johannesburg-based Centre for the Study of Democracy, said in an interview with the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corp. “It’s now looking inevitable that we will see the formation of a new labor federation that will compete with Cosatu.”

‘Don’t Mourn’

A weakened Cosatu may threaten labor support for the ruling party. Numsa has said it plans to form its own political movement to challenge the ANC, criticizing the party for not doing enough to improve the conditions for workers in a country where one in four people are unemployed.

Seven of Cosatu’s 20 affiliates have opposed the removal of Numsa and called on the federation’s president, Sdumo Dlamini, to resign.

“Don’t mourn, organize,” Vavi said on his Twitter account before the Cosatu briefing, without giving further details. He didn’t answer a call made to his mobile phone or immediately reply to a text message.

Vavi can appeal his dismissal at a national congress, in line with Cosatu’s constitution, according to Ntshalintshali, who will now handle the duties of the general secretary.

Tensions within Cosatu erupted when Cosatu’s leaders suspended Vavi in August 2013 for having an extra-marital affair with an employee he hired and accused him of misconduct related to the purchase of Cosatu’s headquarters. Vavi apologized for the affair, while denying any other wrongdoing. The High Court in Johannesburg overturned his suspension in April last year.

The ANC accepted Cosatu’s decision to expel Vavi, saying it will continue to help the federation resolve its challenges through the team led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC national spokesman Zizi Kodwa said in an e-mailed statement.

Deep Rifts

“The rifts are so deep, the arguments so bitter,” Terry Bell, an independent labor analyst, said by phone. “The whole thing is quite honestly a mess.”

Cosatu, which has about 2 million members, was formed in 1985 and supported the struggle against apartheid. Some of its former leaders have served in ANC governments after the ruling party won the first elections after the end of apartheid in 1994. The federation represents state workers as well as industries ranging from mining to transport.

“This is a huge development in labor relations,” Friedman said. “Cosatu will be weakened and it will no longer be able to take its support for granted.”

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