For the past year, another sexual assault allegation has hung, like a sword of Damocles, over Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), while discontent brews within the labour federation about how it was handled.
This latest allegation, rumours of which have long been circulating within the federation, relates to incidents in late August and early September 2017 in which Vavi is said to have harassed and later groped a woman at the Saftu offices in Johannesburg.
The woman is an employee of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), a Saftu affiliate and the largest union in the country. Her identity and occupation are known to amaBhungane.
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Half a dozen sources currently or formerly within the federation and its unions, who are familiar with the incident and the victim and were independently contacted by amaBhungane, gave accounts of what happened ー some in detail.
They requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Neither Vavi nor Numsa responded to questions sent early this week.
Instead a story on the allegations appeared in the Sowetan on Friday, which carried Vavi’s explanation that, “It was accepted by all parties that there has been a complete misunderstanding and the matter was accordingly put to rest.”
The first incident is said to have taken place on Tuesday, September 29 last year, when the Saftu offices were quiet. Vavi is alleged to have made unwanted, inappropriate advances towards the woman including physical harassment, putting his arms around her and trying to kiss her.
A second incident occurred that Friday, when Vavi is said to have cornered and groped her when offering her a massage and pushing her onto a sofa. It is understood the woman was traumatised and fearful.
AmaBhungane attempted to contact the woman. After initially agreeing to speak with us, she later refused, saying she was nervous of speaking to the media.
But sources said the internal investigation into the allegations was flawed.
AmaBhungane understands that shortly after the incident occurred it was reported by the victim to Saftu members. Christine Olivier, Numsa’s former second deputy president, then acting as the union’s international officer, was sent to investigate.
Olivier accompanied the woman to Vavi’s office. A discussion then took place, where Vavi is said to have apologised, said three sources. Olivier then compiled a report on the matter for Numsa. It is not clear whether or not the report exonerates Vavi. According to the Sowetan, Vavi later received a warning.
Olivier declined to speak to amaBhungane.
By this time word of the incident had spread throughout the Numsa building where Saftu is located, and from there through the upper echelons of Saftu to become common corridor talk.
According to sources, on 9 September 2017 the issue was discussed at a meeting of national office bearers (NOBs) where staff and Vavi were present.
Several staff members are said to have demanded at the time that the issue be dealt with swiftly and for Vavi to be placed on suspension pending a full investigation. After discussion, a decision was made to investigate further, said sources. A Numsa source with knowledge of what happened in the meeting confirmed that Saftu national office bearers decided to look into the matter but “there were differences in how to approach it”.
However, nothing further happened, sources said. Vavi took voluntary leave for a week and no further steps were taken to investigate the allegations.
Sources critical of the process said the Olivier investigation compromised the woman and the independence of any investigation that would have followed and was a reflection on how poorly the matter was handled.
A sound process would dictate that Vavi, as the accused, should have had no further contact with the woman pending an investigation, said those close to the matter.
“Best practice would be having a complainant-led process,” said Crystal Dicks, former trade unionist who is now with the Wits Gender Equity Office. “And most importantly, ensuring that the complainant is protected during an investigation. So, ensuring that the accused is not in the same space when there’s the possibility of threat or intimidation.”
A source claimed that the victim accepted the apology but felt it was insufficient. The woman was said to be traumatised and fearful of losing her job. Those familiar with her said she remains traumatised and feels abandoned by the organisations.
Current and former Numsa and federation sources said that sex abuse is a systemic problem and there is a culture of covering up.
“The unions are predominantly male-dominant and run … It’s a boys’ club,” said a source who has worked closely with Numsa.
“It’s not just the unions. This is pervasive in society so why would it just be the unions?”
But those who spoke to amaBhungane said they find it particularly jarring for their leadership to be caught up in a sex scandal and a half-hearted, shoddy investigation, given that campaigns against gender-based discrimination and violence are central to the federation’s professed politics.
“We saw this kind of thing all around us, all the time. We didn’t speak out,” said the source.
“There is a sexualised precariat of young women, mostly admin staff. Many are single mothers and their prospects for employment are not great, so they don’t speak out.”
In 2013, as Cosatu general secretary, Vavi was embroiled in another sex scandal involving a junior staffer.
The employee accused Vavi of rape. He claimed the two were having an affair and that he was the victim of a political conspiracy.
His accuser soon withdrew the rape charge, but the matter did not die down easily in what at the time was a politically fractured Cosatu.
Vavi was later suspended from the union federation. He returned to work in April 2014 after a judge found that the decision to suspend him was unprocedural and unlawful.
Throughout, Numsa was a staunch defender of Vavi.
Responding to the Sowetan, Vavi said the latest complaint was made and resolved last year. “Interestingly, it’s been resuscitated now for obvious reasons.”
He did not say what these reasons were. But some within the federation have speculated that the latest sex abuse case against Vavi has gone nowhere because it is being held hostage to internal political machinations.
Vavi has fallen out with the general secretary of Numsa, Irvin Jim. Sources said that the two have had a complete breakdown in their working relationship despite public displays of unity.
Several sources within Numsa and the federation said that Jim sees Vavi as a threat.
Those who know Jim, who occupies the left flank of the union, said that he sees Vavi as a “black liberal” and is suspicious of the latter’s perceived closeness to various NGOs and civil society organisations. There are also allegations of serious disagreements between the two blocs over the plans to form a new workers’ party.
The two general secretaries are also said to have been bitterly divided over collaborating with civil society formations in recent campaigns against corruption, state capture and the Jacob Zuma presidency, such as #ZumaMustFall and Save SA.
Others allege that Vavi has a solid support base within the federation and that any move to further investigate Vavi or call for his disciplining would be interpreted as an attack on the Saftu head, in which case Saftu’s leadership would close ranks.