In the run up to the September COSATU Congress, the media began to float the story that Zwelenzima Vavi’s position as General Secretary was going to be challenged by NUM, NEHAWU and SADTU because of his perceived opposition to Jacob Zuma. A subtext to this was the idea of the congress as some kind of debating forum where workers would reflect seriously on critical issues facing the labour movement and where there would be the rough and tumble of debate and contestation.
But two shadows loomed over the congress and posed opposing challenges. The spectre of Mangaung loomed over the halls of Gallagher Estate, whilst a few miles away, a strike wave on the mines was spreading after the massacre of workers in Marikana. Faced with the choice of justice for the murdered miners and solidarity with the striking workers versus the politics of the ANC’s succession battles at Mangaung, COSATU chose the latter. Instead of being revived by a new movement of workers challenging the citadels of power, COSATU chose to locate itself firmly with those who are already in power.
So with COSATU viewing the world through the prism of the ANC’s Conference in Mangaung, there was no leadership challenge. Instead COSATU’s affiliate leadership engaged in backroom horse-trading to ensure the usual highly managed continuity. Delegates were given T-shirts proclaiming, “Hands off NUM, Hands off COSATU” and flags to wave while listening to long speeches by the President of South Africa, the ANC, the SACP and a range of cabinet ministers. The speeches and dignitaries took up almost three days of a 4-day congress and as a result, all the affiliate-sponsored political and organisational resolutions were deferred to the smaller body, the Central Executive Committee.
This practice of stage management where delegates are subjected to the domination of dignitaries has been a feature of COSATU congresses for some time now with many delegates milling around outside taking photos on their cell phones and seeking advice from the dozens of medical aid, insurance and other corporate service providers positioned in the foyer of the cavernous Gallagher Estate in Midrand. Indeed one of these corporate service providers, Patrice Motsepe’s African Rainbow Minerals, largely paid for the congress.
With no leadership challenge, the politics deferred to a smaller leadership structure and the whole thing carefully stage managed, the only debate was around Vavi’s secretariat report, which ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, NUM, NEHAWU and SADTU felt was too critical of the ANC. So it was appropriately toned down.
Vavi’s prescient warnings before the congress and those in his secretarial report – that unless COSATU took a serious look at itself, a future of splits and disintegration loomed – went unheeded. Ironically Vavi raced from the Congress to Gold Fields’ Driefontein mine to declare the Lonmin workers victory of a 22% wage increase “bad for the economy” and to call on the striking workers to go back to work.
COSATU’s betrayal is no cause for celebration. The federation, like its predecessors FOSATU, SAAWU, SACTU, CNETU and the ICU, was built on the blood and guts of ordinary workers. Its journey from the radical voice of millions of workers to the shabby caricature it has become today needs an explanation and objective analysis -- especially since one senses in the new mood of workers in the mining sector and in the ongoing service delivery revolts that a new movement is being forged, and everyone needs to learn the lessons of the one currently in terminal decline.
Already some voices in the media and amongst economists have latched onto research reports commissioned by COSATU, which reveal that its members are dissatisfied with services, their wage increases and so on, and suggest that COSATU has become too political and needs to get back to its core business of servicing its membership. Even inside COSATU, Vavi has been calling for such an approach for some while now.
But the intimate and direct relationship between the issues of collective bargaining and political power and the political policies of the state have long been a feature of the landscape of labour movements here in South Africa and everywhere else in the world. To wish to lock a labour movement into some kind of pure syndicalist box simply defies the lessons of recent history and the experience of social movement unionism in parts of the world today where the labour movement is growing in number and in influence. And the striking Lonmin workers at Marikana have discovered that what appears to be a simple matter of pursuing higher wages, brought them into the centre of world and domestic politics – not to mention their murders.
To echo an old feminist slogan, “The industrial is political!”
The problem is not that COSATU has been too political. The problem is that COSATU has not been political enough. COSATU has abandoned political leadership to the ANC and suffered the consequences of being the lap dog of the ruling party’s neoliberal policies.
But we also need other explanations for the decline of COSATU. There are at least two. One relates to the changing composition of the working class brought about by 20 years of neoliberal capitalism and the other relates to COSATU’s involvement in the palace coup that brought Jacob Zuma to power.
The first is the much deeper structural explanation. While today’s working class is largely a mass of working poor, informalised, casualised and eking out an existence in urban and rural shantytowns, COSATU has been moving upstream. Here many of us have already been spelling out the changing nature and composition of COSATU’s affiliate members - the prevalence of white-collar public sector workers; the beneficiaries of affirmative action in the public sector and so on.
Recent studies of NUM in the Business Day also paint a picture of the culture of full time shop stewards getting paid extra allowances for attending the plethora of negotiating and policy forums of the Chamber of Mines and the investment units of NUM. And the top-ups that branch elected officials and organisers similarly get – all of which generate the notion of the union, not as a site of struggle but as a career path and a source of perks.
The second, less structural, but no less important reason for COSATU’s decline can be traced to what appears to have been its crowning glory moment: unseating a sitting president and hoisting its preferred candidate, Jacob Zuma, into office.
Like the fallout suffered by Lady Macbeth and her spouse in Shakespeare’s Scottish play it is noticeable how all the conspirators who united to kick out Mbeki in 2009, the ANCYL, COSATU and the SACP, have come to grief. We all now know of the travails of the ANCYL and its expelled leaders. The SACP has been reduced to a government department whilst its cadres squabble over whether Blade Nzimande should be full-time or not. While the same part-time General Secretary spends his time slandering strikers. Nobody could have predicted Marikana and its aftermath. Now it’s COSATU’s turn.
None of this was about political programme principle. Instead the coalition of COSATU, the SACP, the ANCYL, the collection of businessmen like Sexwale, the Shaik brothers and the Mkhwanazis, which swept Zuma into power, all demanded their pound of flesh and this has produced high levels of chaos and infighting. And the fact that all of these forces need to be rewarded with cars, positions in the state and the parastatals and lucrative contracts, heightens public disgust with the avarice of the new order.
In the past, COSATU sought to fight battles within the Alliance by acting as some kind of progressive counterweight to all the ANC’s rightward shifts - from the RDP as a negotiation chip with the ANC; to wanting to have its own candidates; to the debates around the Alliance as the “political centre”. Then came the Jacob Zuma moment and their pact with the devil. Now COSATU and the SACP are accommodated in the cabinet and on the top floor of Luthuli House. Now there is nowhere else to go, except call for a defence of the Polokwane resolutions.
So when Marikana happened and it was their government who summoned the police against striking workers, all COSATU could do was to close ranks around its sweetheart union and around its government.
COSATU disgracefully participated in the demonization of Lonmin workers. NUM claimed that many of the Marikana massacre victims were not workers or even employees of Lonmin. That this somehow de-legitimises their struggles and their strike. But if the whole community at Marikana came out in support of the striking workers and paid with their lives, whether they were employed there or not - isn’t this something that COSATU always tried to achieve in its heyday? Isn’t this a reflection of COSATU’s once-revered slogan, “An injury to one is and injury to all!”
The September Congress revealed all this.
Which brings us to the one bit of policy adopted by the Congress – the idea of pushing the ANC government for an economic policy shift in Zuma’s likely second term: the so-called Lula shift.
This is the safe space of economic policy debates, which make some sections of the media sit up. Its politics is that of touting something new, something vaguely more left wing than the ANC government’s policies and then taking away - by condemning the striking workers and affirming your undying loyalty to the ANC - any possibility of winning the struggle for these policies, in advance. So then the Lula moment will go the way of a long line of such catchy slogans. Who now remembers the Second Transition and the New Growth Plan?
But ironically enough, the choice of COSATU’s call for a “Lula moment” to frame its call for economic policy changes is not without its own appropriateness. Lula the erstwhile Brazilian President came to power in 2002 as head of the Workers Party (PT) having been general secretary of Brazil’s COSATU equivalent – the CUT (Central Unificaio du Trabalhadores). With his first election Lula proceeded to embrace neoliberal policies including cutting pensions for public sector workers. This led to a crisis within the CUT, as the federation fought Lula on this betrayal. Some unions of the CUT then walked out when the federation would not take a stand against its PT ally. These unions grouped themselves into a new labour movement called CONLUTAS and have consistently challenged the CUT to break with the appeasement policies towards both Lula and his successor, Dilma Roussef.
Today while the CUT is in the doldrums, CONLUTAS is growing and has extended its membership, particularly into Brazil’s huge mining industry.
Here in South Africa the Lonmin workers have had to struggle using only their own bodies and resources and self-organisation - despite, and against, those historically closest to them.
And in the middle of their struggles they had to scrutinise and discern from amongst the many gawkers, who was with them and who was being wheeled in complete with bodyguards and bling, to use them as a publicity opportunity for other causes. The Julius Malema factor was as if scripted by his erstwhile Alliance partners. They needed an excuse to justify the killing of the miners and the demonising of their struggles, and Malema provided them with one.
But this was no mere industrial relations issue. The barbaric mining practices of Lonmin are just one of the faces of neoliberal capitalism in South Africa.
The lack of housing and the abandonment by the state of any responsibility for services is another. The platinum belt is the jewel in the mining crown. But it is also home to the worst squalor of informal settlements, broken communal taps and inadequate communal toilets. Throughout the country SA’s local authorities are crisis ridden as the neoliberal model puts them in an impossible squeeze – having to take on more services with fewer resources. And then have this overlaid with local instances of corruption. This has been the stuff fuelling the service delivery revolts throughout the country.
So we should all be prepared for an ongoing storm.
With the ANC’s moral legitimacy irrevocably gone…and with COSATU’s betrayal of its past working class traditions, the struggle for social justice has now passed on to a whole new working class who are outside the Tripartite Alliance and its constituent parts.
A new movement is being forged - right in front of our eyes - and its time once again to take sides…COSATU has made its choice but what about the rest of us?
Yes, COSATU Is Now a Sell Out Federation
Before the COSATU conference the federation had some sell out unions - like NUMSA and SADTU. But its now a sell out federation altogether. Vavi should have resigned and go to Marikana or the social movements, or both, rather than put on a 'defend NUM' shirt and stand next to Zuma.