At the time of writing Zwelinzima Vavi is still general secretary of Cosatu, the country’s largest trade union federation and powerful ally to the governing ANC. He is reportedly scheduled to appear before some form of Cosatu internal process today to answer to charges of sexual harassment in the workplace and other additional charges are being lined up. Before the news broke, he laboured for months to publicly portray himself as the target of various political conspiracies and now, after the story went public, he maintains that what happened was an act of sexual infidelity between two consenting adults for which he is sorry.
However, from what he as admitted to so far, there is a strong prima facie case against him.
Port Elizabeth’s Weekend Post on Saturday broke the news that a 26-year-old administrator had come forward claiming that the 50-year-old trade union federation leader had raped her in her office at Cosatu’s headquarters in Johannesburg. Mr Vavi maintains that the sex was consensual and that the pair had been engaged in a long-running office romance that had consisted of heavy petting up to and after what he described as “brief intercourse while standing” in her locked office on 25 January.
When the story broke, Mr Vavi—who has a long, well-documented history of battling political enemies annoyed by his public sermons on the “predatory elite” and the lack of a political conscience in the ANC alliance—commandeered Cosatu’s media infrastructure to release his formal response with no regard for the doubts it would raise about Cosatu’s impartiality in a matter between two of its employees. He included in Cosatu’s media statements the name of his accuser and the long series of text messages between them that he says prove a political conspiracy and that she and her husband tried to extort R2-million from him.
There are several red herrings to be avoided to understand why, if the general secretary is a man who lives by his words, he should step aside and admit, political conspiracy or not, that he has brought himself and his organisation into disrepute.
The first is the rape allegation, which is serious but isn’t for Cosatu’s internal proceedings to adjudicate. It’s for the courts to hear the matter, if the woman involved does decide to file charges with the police.
That she has not yet reported Mr Vavi to the police is another red herring. Many victims of rape and sexual abuse never report the matter, let alone report it six months later under a cloud of supposedly being a pawn of political machinations. This in itself tells us little about the credibility of her story. There are substantive reasons why rape and sexual abuse go unreported or are only reported long after the fact, including shame, the fear of being victimised and the low conviction rate of sexual assaults.
Another distraction is the allegation that she and her husband demanded R2-million from Mr Vavi. She says they only asked for the money after Mr Vavi’s wife suggested it as a way of putting the sordid mess behind them. As this is potentially extortion, and Mr Vavi has reportedly filed charges with the police, this is for the courts to deliberate.
Mr Vavi’s public apology for adultery, however well meaning, is also not relevant. Adultery is not the complaint filed against him. It really should not be for an employer, or anyone else for that matter, to pass judgement on the character of a person based on the deeply conservative sexual mores of a society of individuals whose public and private faces often do not match up.
Finally the reddest of the herrings is Mr Vavi’s claim that an unknown third party recorded the conversations between him and the woman and used those recordings to threaten and cajole her into claiming he raped her. This again is for the courts to consider in the matter of the alleged extortion, or in the event that a rape case is filed and survives prosecutorial discretion. It bears little relevance to the charge of sexual harassment in the workplace as, going even by Mr Vavi’s account, this third party only became involved early in June 2013.
With that out of the way, what is relevant?
The woman says Mr Vavi, whose duties include the supervision of staff and the financial management of the trade union federation, personally hired her in 2011 after being impressed with her level of customer service while she was a ticketing agent at South African Airways. She says there was no job interview or any other formal process and she began her new job in January 2012. Mr Vavi says they became attracted to each other in October 2012 and began a relationship that consisted only of hugging and kissing—in private. On 25 January 2013, at midday, he entered her office and locked the door behind him during a day where he says they’d been hugging and kissing as they had before. They hugged and kissed again and this led to what he says was consensual sex but what she says was rape—both contentions are for the courts to deliberate.
Sex in the workplace for most organisations is considered misconduct. It is just not what an employer pays employees to do at work during office hours. A couple of years ago a policewoman and an officer from correctional services, both married to other people, were suspended and fired after a recording of them having sex while on duty went public. Mr Vavi’s conduct is further called into question by the allegation that he hired her without following proper procedures and then, as someone who holds sway over her livelihood and assessments of her workplace performance, began shortly thereafter what he says was a secret relationship.
This is quite damning and no political political enemy of Mr Vavi made him hire her improperly, begin the alleged relationship or have at his place of work what he alleges was consensual sex.
Cosatu’s constitution empowers the central executive committee to dismiss the general secretary if he or she has committed misconduct or acted in a manner detrimental to the federation. Mr Vavi of course can fight the charges and appeal, if found guilty. Thanks to Cosatu, this country’s labour laws are, in this respect, among finest in the world in terms of worker protection, so he can even eventually turn to the courts for relief.
But Mr Vavi has built his image on being a champion for the poor and working class. He has spoken about how badly this country needs respectable, incorruptible leadership. Through his own actions and the long, drawn-out process that is to come as he tries to salvage his career and image while his political enemies press harder, attention will be diverted from the much-ignored and maligned struggles of the poor and working class, and greater mistrust in this country’s leaders will fester and grow.
If Mr Vavi allows this to happen, he will be serving his own interests and ego. Now is the time for him to take his last step in service of the working class for the foreseeable future by stepping down as general secretary and out of the imagination of a public already too consumed with frivolity while more pressing issues are ignored.
* Update: The woman withdrew her grievance with Cosatu. It was a grievance of sexual harassment in the workplace, not rape, as is being widely reported. We don’t know yet why she withdrew her grievance. Frankly, if I were her lawyer, after Mr Vavi took to using Cosatu’s communications infrastructure to discredit, I would have told her to withdraw the grievance and take Cosatu and Mr Vavi to the CCMA for procedural irregularity and bias.
It remains that Mr Vavi abused his position and had sex in the workplace and should resign.