Vavi apologises for role in Zuma's ascent to power

Former COSATU GS says the enemy of one's enemy is not always one's friend

Vavi repeats apology for helping to oust Mbeki

Stellenbosch - Cosatu is still paying dearly for their affiliation to the ruling ANC party, the trade union federation's former secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi said in Stellenbosch this week.

He was on a panel with Solidarity's Flip Buys and seasoned labour journalist Jan de Lange at the annual Woordfees, discussing the role of trade unions in South Africa, and whether they were sustainable.

Vavi, who was ousted from the union after fierce in-fighting, once again apologised "to South Africa" for the union's role in getting rid of former president Thabo Mbeki at Polokwane in 2012.

"I apologised to the country for that mistake, for getting it so wrong. We were angry, and found anyone willing to challenge him and raised them up. We were angry because he was an Aids denialist, and thousands of our people were dying.

"And yes, we are still paying very dearly for it."

Vavi was responding to a comment by facilitator Henry Jeffreys on Cosatu being the "cheerleaders" during the Polokwane palace revolution.

He is now actively campaigning for an independent trade union movement with no affiliation to any political party. "The only pressure should come from our members, not from organisations who think they can control us."

He said part of Cosatu's problem was that their close relationship with the ruling party had led to a situation where they tried to mould the union "into their image".

"Never make friends with people fighting with the enemy without asking what the fight is about," Vavi warned, saying that they had never paused to think why other people were so eager to get rid of Mbeki.

"We were naïve. Others were scared of losing government posts. There were many agendas. That's why I am apologising."

Buys said he agreed with the notion of no political affiliation for unions.

As the "odd man out" among other unions, Solidarity, however, shared many objectives with them, despite ideological differences, he said.

"The fight against corruption, poor governance - we need to get it right."

He reiterated Solidarity's stance that the free market system was the only way to lift people out of poverty.

On the role of unions, De Lange said they were in essence service organisations, whose primary duties were to defend workers' jobs and protect them from harassment by their bosses.

The tragedy of Marikana boiled down to one thing, De Lange said: "It was the union's failure to effectively convey the workers' wage demands to Lonmin."

Vavi said Marikana was indeed a game-changer for unions, because for the first time workers demonstrated that they could stand up on their own, without their leaders. "The farmworkers in De Doorns did the same, and Cosatu was not prepared for any of this."

The panel agreed that unless the mandate of the workers trumped everything, unions ran a real risk of becoming obsolete.

This article first appeared on News24 – see here