Zwelinzima Joseph Vavi was born on 20 December 1962 on a farm in Hanover, Northern Cape. His father was a mineworker. Vavi has four brothers and seven sisters. He is the 10th child in a family of 12. Until he was baptised, he did not know the date of his birthday. He was a child labourer, looking for work on neighbouring farms. He matriculated in 1983. He attended Maritaaz Technical College where he obtained a secretarial qualification.

Vavi’s career in the labour movement started in 1984 when he was working as a clerk on a gold minethe Uranium plant of Vaal Reefs no 8 shaft. In 1987, Vavi worked in the gold-mining area of Klerksdorp and Orkney in the North West Province. He was also a uranium plant clerk at Vaal Reefs mine, and joined the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as an organizer in 1987 at the Klerksdorp region in the North West Province. Subsequently, he was fired from AngloGold following a massive miners' strike. He then joined Congress of the South African Trade Unions (COSATU) as a volunteer in 1988.

In 1988 to 1992, he was the regional secretary of COSATU in Western Transvaal.  In 1990 to 1992, he was an interim Chair of COSATU in Vaal Triangle sub-region. He also served as COSATU's deputy general secretary from 1993 to 1999. From 1999 to 2015, he served as the General Secretary of COSATU. He served on the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Commission on globalisation. In 1999, Vavi succeeded Mbhazima Shilowa, former the Gauteng Premier, now one of the leaders of Congress of the People (COPE) as general secretary of COSATU. In 2002, Vavi addressed the 27 June 2002 XIV International AIDS Conference where he pushed mass education and prevention campaigns. Vavi also sat on the Board of Directors for the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup held in South Africa.

As the Secretary General of Cosatu, Vavi expressed disappointment with certain political, economic and labour issues. For example, he took particular issue with the Public Investment Corporation's Telkom share purchase; involving former communications director-general Andile Ngcaba and the former head of the presidency Smuts Ngonyama. COSATU accused both of taking advantage of their government posts to access privileged information.

In May 2010, the African National Congress (ANC) threatened to charge Vavi with ill-discipline. Vavi also argued that under Jacob Zuma's government South Africa was heading quickly in the direction of a full-blown predator state in which powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas increasingly controlled the state as a vehicle of accumulation. He has been critical of the government’s economic policies especially the 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy.

However, in December 2011, Vavi commended the intervention by the President, Jacob Zuma, in Provincial Departments blemished by corruption. Vavi was speaking at the 4th National Anti-Corruption Summit held in Johannesburg on 8 December 2011. Vavi accused public servants of caring only for their own narrow financial interests and painted a nightmarish future of a South Africa sold to the highest bidder. He urged President Jacob Zuma to be resolute in the fight against corruption and believed that there must be a more concerted effort to fighting corruption in government departments. 

In 2013, Vavi was accused of rape by a 26-year-old colleague, who claimed Vavi offered her a job at COSATU without proper recruitment procedures. Vavi admitted that he did have a relationship with the accuser and that they have had sexual relations in one of COSATU offices in January 2013, but denied that he forced himself on the colleague, saying everything that happened between them was completely consensual. Vavi claimed that the colleague tried to extort R 2 million to keep quiet about the incident. After the details were revealed, Vavi laid charges of extortion and blackmail against the woman, claiming that she had planned the whole incident. No charges were laid against Vavi. The two underwent internal disciplinary processes at COSATU. On 14 August 2013, Vavi was suspended by COSATU.  

In 2015, Vavi spoke out against the expulsion of National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) the metalworkers union, who used to be the biggest union in the COSATU federation. Numsa was expelled for contravening Cosatu's constitution. This is one of the major factors contributing to Vavi's expulsion from the COSATU. On 30 March 2015, the Central Executive Committee (CEC) held a vote to expel Vavi. The vote was 31to 1 in favour of expelling Vavi. On 30 March 2015, Cosatu’s central executive committee (CEC) fired Vavi as the trade union federation’s secretary general. The main reason for Vavi’s dismissal from Cosatu was his failure to fulfil his duties as the general secretary of COSATU.

He was married to Nikiwe, a PA with the Gender Commission, but the couple have since divorced.  He is married to Noluthando and they have two children

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