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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: March 2018

Chapter 8 - The Politics of Male Power and Privilege in Trade Unions: Understanding sexual harassment in Cosatu



In July 2013 the general secretary of Cosatu, Zwelinzima Vavi, was accused of rape and sexual harassment by a junior female colleague who was employed in an administrative position by Vavi himself. Vavi was suspended, but was later reinstated after the court declared the suspension to be unprocedural. Investigations into the allegations of sexual harassment and a charge of misconduct (engaging in a sexual act within the organisation's premises) were conducted by the federation. However, both allegations were later withdrawn by the accused, and Cosatu failed to proceed with the charge of misconduct against Vavi. Although Vavi was eventually dismissed from his position as the general secretary of Cosatu, the reasons for his dismissal largely focused on organisational politics and his failure to comply with organisational decisions.

In a television interview for the programme Carte Blanche, Vavi explained that he met the 26-year-old Jacqueline Phooko ‘as one of the workers at SAA [South African Airways] and she was very efficient, very helpful and I was genuinely impressed’ (cited in Seale 2013). It was after this that Vavi took the details of the woman and later offered her a job as one of the administrators at Cosatu head office in Braamfontein, where he was based. According to Phooko's account, there was no interview for the job, but Vavi claims that an interview was conducted by himself and an administrative secretary. Further explaining the nature of her employment, Vavi indicated that ‘she was to do a trial run. When the six-month [contract] ended, we hired her. We call that headhunting’ (cited in Seale 2013).

The aim of this chapter is to reflect on this sexual harassment saga and its implications for the politics of gender in Cosatu and its affiliates. I argue that sexual harassment is a broader social problem in South Africa and is not confined to trade unions. It reflects on the patriarchal nature of our society that promotes a misogynistic culture degrading women and sexualises their presence in the public space. Sexual harassment is an issue of gendered inequalities between women and men, with the latter in positions of power due to the ‘privilege’ of being heterosexual men. The gendered hierarchical leadership and occupational structure in the unions places men in strategic positions, with decision-making powers on hiring, promotion, salaries and work benefits (Acker 1990).