Vavi’s insidious actions a sign of embedded patriarchy in our society
On the eve of Women’s month, South Africa was treated to what has become somewhat normal in this country – the act of adultery by yet another person but this time an outspoken politician – Zwelinzima Vavi – who carries himself as a champion of all the downtrodden on all issues of oppression, including that of patriarchy in our society.
Adultery (as wrong as it is) is not the enemy here; the grave circumstances surrounding Vavi’s adultery are the subject of great concern.
Vavi has become too big for his own shoes, in his imaginary world, he is the saviour and only person able to unveil the sins of the current government and thus he cannot be innocently faulted nor held accountable for his misdemeanours.
As he will brush off such effort for accountability as part of a political plot to silence him. Given this knowledge, wisdom (if applicable) should have counselled Vavi never to partake in such senseless acts, at the height of his political vulnerability, post the Mangaung ANC conference.
The truth is that Vavi knew his interest in Jacqueline Phooko was genuine the day he met her in the SAA counters at the airport in 2011.
For him to now suddenly spin this as a political conspiracy is senseless, opportunistic and demeaning of Phooko’s integrity and dignity.
Vavi wrote in a press statement of the 27/07/13, “Lately as we all know, these efforts to destroy me have intensified. I am unable not to view this matter [of Phooko’s complaint] in the same light.”
These remarks lack sobriety. Vavi hired and took interest in Phooko, unless he suggests that his hormones are political by nature – to his own detriment of course.
Here, Vavi uses political rivalry and knowledge of the existence of adversaries as a cheap scapegoat. In his response to the formal grievance laid against him, Vavi submits that his documents “…will be conclusive to show that the complainant is not truthful in her allegations against me and that it will show up her true agenda.”
Again, here, Vavi delegitimises Phooko’s claims by boxing her as an agent of destruction that is now in cahoots with his political adversaries.
Women face this challenge every day, whereby they are seen as proxies for others, without a genuine voice to table their own concerns – as though they are immune to suffering in any form.
Phooko claims that she “did not know who he [Vavi] was or how important he was” during their first encounter, up until her husband enlightened her that this was “the big union boss” she was talking about.
Vavi’s behaviour towards the complainant, from the first day to the day of the dropping of the complaint against Vavi, has been filled with evident patterns of feeding off the patriarchal position Vavi finds himself enjoying in our society.
Not only is Vavi a product of a patriarchal society, he occupies a political position that bolsters his inherent teachings from society and assists him to further perpetuate them, knowingly or otherwise.
Here let us deal with Vavi’s insistence, and for a moment accept, that the encounter between him and Phooko was consensual. He writes, “All our encounters were encounters between two consenting adults who clearly had feelings for one another”.
What Vavi fails to add is that even though consent might have existed it did between two people with asymmetric power relations.
He had already demonstrated his powerfulness to Phooko by hiring her without due process as she claims “there wasn’t even an interview” for the job offer.
This can be interpreted as Vavi deliberately using his position of power and privilege to bring in Phooko to the COSATU stable albeit without knowledge of her expertise. One may ask, are women always victims? In all likelihood yes, in a society that reinforces women inferiority and subordination daily.
Phooko, like any other individual in South Africa, especially as a mother, has an interest to upward mobility – monetarily – in order for her to secure a bright future for her children.
Vavi who often talks about “the ticking time bomb” of unemployment is much aware of this. Vavi, the negotiator on behalf of employees who seek to get their salaries raised daily in order to access a better life, knew the vulnerability of Phooko given her position in society both as a low-level employee in SAA and as a mother eager to earn more.
Vavi then exploited his position and put resources of COSATU as bait enough to bring closer to him someone who had evidently strike his hormones the day he laid his eyes on her.
The nature of the first kiss between the two has not been described to us. However, psychoanalysis and the existence of asymmetric power relations make it possible to infer that Phooko was under immense pressure to prove her loyalty to Vavi and thus not disappoint his desires in order for her to keep her job that Vavi so generously sweated and ‘head-hunted’ her for.
This is what makes these revelations a serious organisational matter, contrary to the belief of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Numsa in a press statement on the matter stated: “We will be looking out for signs that these anti-revolutionary working class forces that are hell bent on destroying the federation, and thus irreparably fragmenting and weakening the power of the revolutionary working class in this country, try to migrate a private and personal matter into an organisational matter, in Cosatu.”
These remarks also lack sobriety. Fornication during office hours, between a Secretary General of the biggest labour federation and a staff member, is definitely an organisational matter. Again, Phooko’s suffering is relegated to being a subtext of Numsa’s concerns.
Their primary focus is to derail and ‘deal’ with their political adversaries (which in this case that happens to be Vavi’s hormones and not actual people).
Eagerly Numsa in the same statement writes, “…we are convinced that the working class cause for real freedom, equality and dignity for and between the sexes – socialism – is only harmed by the subordinate, humiliating, insulting and demeaning position which our inherited patriarchal and capitalist system imposes on women, both in the home and at work.”
To Numsa Vavi is not part of entrenching this ‘inherited patriarchal and capitalist system’ simply because he is a union boss. The reality is that both patriarchy and capitalism exist even in Cosatu House.
Men subject women to their sexual fantasies and expect action and on the other hand staff members (workers) are giving their services in exchange for payment (a true capitalist exchange: labour for money) and perhaps even more is expected in Cosatu – sex during office hours.
Evidently, sex had never been part of the occurrences between these two before the January encounter. However, the day it happened Vavi admittedly “locked her office door but only to ensure that no one else could come in”. Thus, without further evidence, it is Vavi who decided that it was time to upgrade this flirtatious affair to sexual intercourse. His position of being a patriarch allowed him. Did he get consent from Phooko to lock the door? It seems Vavi fails to take lessons from Teddy Pendegrass’ Close the door song. It is the woman that gets asked to close the door and that becomes the first act of consent towards her having “no need to worry no more” on the path to sexual intercourse.
After the sex, Vavi also assumed another patriarchal role evident during sexual intercourse, he says, “After that [sex] I asked her affectionately if she was okay, and when she assured me that she was okay I left the office.”
Why would she not be okay if the sex was consensual? Or perhaps was Vavi feeling guilty that he had subjected Phooko to embarrassingly demeaning conditions of having sex standing in the office she works in?
Where from cometh thy guilt in this instance Vavi?
Phooko’s remarks deserve attention when she says, “…I can assure you what Vavi claims was a consensual act between two adults would not have taken place under such circumstances in the middle of the day in my office.”
There are very few people who would have sex in their offices, let alone first time sex with a person.
These circumstances alone are very discomforting and raise a lot of questions on the part of Vavi as the custodian of Cosatu’s office building, its code of conduct, sexual harassment policy and other related policies that govern the working environment.
There are claims by Phooko that Vavi’s wife did ask over a text message “How can we put this behind us?” and later asserted over a phone call, “I’m willing to pay you if you promise to keep quiet.” If these are true, it is a classic case of a woman acting as an agent of the perpetuation of patriarchy under the guise of ‘protecting her marriage’. It is true that Vavi’s wife met Phooko on July 1, 2013 and evidently not under hostile conditions.
Of course, as the wife hers was not going to be to motivate Phooko into action against her own husband.
Fortunately or unfortunately patriarchy thrives of this disunity that women experience over such issues and as a result the man (Vavi) walks away viewed as a victim of this somewhat loose woman seeking ‘extortion’ with the view of making a quick bucks.
For Vavi’s wife, that her husband might have brought HIV home, impregnated another woman, undermined their marriage and betrayed their vows all becomes secondary out of a desire to maintain Vavi’s patriarchal social standing.
Vavi has carried himself in the most narcissistic way during this process, only interested in personal preservation, using the media as his platform for defense as opposed to the internal structures of Cosatu and relying on the designated persons to issue statements.
Instead, he publicly disclosed certain documents pertaining to the grievance process, without indication that consent was received from the affected parties to do such.
The grievance remained a public rumour, only with the structures of Cosatu having the formal documentation to proceedings.
The minute Vavi publicly disclosed some submissions and began to shape public opinion over his guilt and quickly sending public apologies and the likes, he again used his “big man syndrome” to place Phooko on the back foot.
Thus, not affording her a fair process devoid of public pressure, as she does not enjoy the leisure of issuing media statements and publishing her submissions on the Cosatu website. Also, Vavi by disclosing their sms exchanges – selectively – he compromised Phooko’s right to privacy, all out of interest to maintain his position of patriarchy.
Embarrassingly was Vavi’s insistence in his response to the grievance that “…opponents of mine have seized the opportunity in order to gain maximum advantage over me and my position.”
This is senseless. He opened himself up to political vulnerability; it is thus disingenuous for him to silently blame Phooko for this.
When the grievance was dropped, Vavi released another disturbing statement saying, “I am pleased that the grievance has been finalized. I hope that we all can put this sage behind us so that we all can concentrate on the real issues of the day – ensuring that we have a vibrant trade union federation that promotes South Africa…”
This was the ultimate incident that revealed that Vavi views issues of women in our society as a mere saga and are not at the core of a ‘vibrant union federation’.
It is disturbing how Phooko has been a subtext, deliberately being cast into oblivion and petty politics being brought to the limelight.
Vavi has lost the moral high ground to speak or even represent any worker on issues of sexual harassment or office romance. He admits that “…whenever she came to my office we would kiss as before.”
Therefore, Vavi had a work environment of kisses – blatant distraction that borders on stupidity.
Therefore, his claim for sympathy that he is human and fallible deserves harsh scrutiny. He repeatedly kissed the same lady for months on end, flirting and affectionately expressing himself.
Mistakes are incidental and once they become repetitive they cease to be mistakes.
We must never easily accept that infidelity and poor judgment by politicians is part of a greater political plot to bring them down.
It is somewhat interesting that Vavi sees no shame in sleeping with an employee of Cosatu that he recruited to Cosatu House. This has become the ultimate test on Vavi’s integrity and if indeed he is half the man he claims to be he should resign from his position of secretary general of Cosatu as he has not only tainted his name, that of Phooko, embarrassed both families; he has also brought the name of Cosatu into disrepute.
Cosatu House is now seen as somewhat of a mini daytime brothel. Thanks to the Secretary General, it is also seen as a place where workers are exploited, power is abused and thus it is somewhat of a fraud for having leaders that do not stand for what they preach.
Can you imagine which morality high horse Vavi would be riding if these revelations were made in connection to a CEO of a big private company?
In the age of a stern campaign against HIV and AIDS, Vavi’s acts of unprotected sex with a ‘stranger’ does more to showcase how backward and self-inflicting of pain we are as a nation.
Activists are at all times called upon to champion vehemently their causes with little fallibility. Vavi has failed the test and he must own up to it. An apology is not enough to restore the image of Cosatu for as long as he occupies that seat in the building.
He drags a dark cloud with him always over the towering building.