Cosatu/Numsa Split Indicative of Deeper Structural Problems in SA Trade Union Sector

12 Nov 2014

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Back in March 2012, a good five months before the Marikana massacre exposed the internal weaknesses of the South African trade union sector, SACSIS’ Fazila Farouk interviewed labour expert, Ighsaan Schroeder, who said that Cosatu was well on its way to demise and could collapse within a mere 15 years due to serious structural weaknesses in the trade union sector. Soon after the Marikana massacre, Schroeder revised his prediction saying that he gives Cosatu just another five years before it ceases to exist.

Well, two years later, Cosatu has expelled its largest affiliate, Numsa, and its unravelling is taking place faster than any of us could have imagined. SACSIS caught up with Schroeder again who argues that "alliance politics" is a mere cover for much deeper structural problems facing the labour movement in South Africa. Both Numsa and Cosatu are in for further shocks, if they do not take cognisance of the changing nature and needs of workers.

Ighsaan Schroeder is the Co-ordinator of the Casual Workers’ Advice Office. Fazila Farouk is the executive director of SACSIS.


FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk coming to you from Johannesburg.

On Saturday, the 8 November 2014 in the early hours of the morning, South Africa’s major trade union federation COSATU expelled its biggest affiliate, NUMSA.

Now NUMSA’s expulsion has been brewing for some time now.

NUMSA’s expulsion is linked to the factionalism inside COSATU. But long before these issues came to the public’s attention, way back in March 2012, I interviewed Ighsaan Schroeder of the Casual Workers Advice Office who said that COSATU’s demise was on the cards. Back then when I interviewed Ighsaan he said COSATUs demise was probably going to come along in 15 years time. That was more than two years ago. I interviewed him (again) shortly after the Marikana Massacre and he revised his prediction saying he doesn’t give COSATU another five years.

Well, here we are just over two years later and it seems Ighsaan’s prediction is coming true. COSATU seems to be unravelling much faster than any of us would have imagined or could have imagined.

Welcome to SACSIS Ighsaan.

IGHSAAN SCHROEDER: Hi, thanks for having me.

FAZILA FAROUK: This is something you predicted long before anybody else. And I was wondering, given the current situation with NUMSA being expelled from COSATU, what do you think of what’s going on? Can you reflect on, especially recent happenings, what’s the meaning of NUMSA’s expulsion from COSATU now today?

IGHSAAN SCHROEDER: Well, I think, the first thing is that it’s as you said in the introduction. This unravelling has been taking place for quite some time now. So you know the – none of us could have predicted how exactly COSATU would sort of formerly unravelled. But the process of the collapse of the organisation has been going on for some years now and Marikana was a very graphic expression of that collapse of COSATU and its disintegration.

I think what we’re seeing with the, you know, with the NUMSA expulsion is the more - almost the more formal side of the kind of - the detail almost of the kind of formal unravelling of the federation.

And - because you must bear in mind that although the federation seems to be now split down the middle as everybody reports. In both camps, the camp that is supporting NUMSA and in the camp that is opposing NUMSA, in both camps there are unions that are really on their knees. If you take a union like CEPPWAWU (Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union), for example, the – it was issued with a deregistration notice. So it was going to be deregistered at the end of September. If you take some of the big unions in the block that’s supporting NUMSA like SAMWU (South African Municipal Workers' Union) -- in a court case, in September, the judge found that the leadership, effectively, was responsible for the disappearance of something like R136 million and there’s a big fight in the union at the moment.

So, you know, this process has been going on. And what -- at some level the expulsion of NUMSA in a way almost, you know, although everyone talks about, you know, what this means and what’s the significance -- in some way, it almost hides the real story.

Because if you look at NUMSAs expulsion, the reason given for its expulsion is that it called for a break with the ANC and that it’s begun to poach members of other unions. So it can give the impression that it’s a - you know that the difference in COSATU is a political one. That the real problem or the underlying basis for its collapse is this disagreement over the question of support for the ANC or non-support for the ANC.

But in reality that’s not really what is going down here. That’s the immediate reason for NUMSAs expulsion. But in reality, these unions have been in a state of decay and decline for some time now. And this simply is one more confirmation of that.

So if you look at the General Secretary’s report to the CEC, for example - this CEC that has just sat - he mentions in his report that at least seven affiliates were riven completely with factionalism, with problems of corruption and generally his tone in his report is that the federation is dysfunctional.

If you…compare that report to the report he tabled in 2012 in the Congress of 2012, its much – the theme is the same and that’s long before the expulsion of NUMSA. So, in many ways, this is really a confirmation of that long process and what it might well do, it may, it may know it might accelerate the formal collapse of the federation.

But that process has been in progress for some time now.

FAZILA FAROUK: It is interesting watching this thing from the outside and what’s…you know COSATU has played such an important role in society and in politics in general in South Africa. What does this mean now that it’s starting to unravel like this?

IGHSAAN SCHROEDER: It depends on what perspective you want to take on that.

I think from the point of view of ordinary workers, it’s not going to mean much. COSATU has long ceased to represent ordinary blue collar workers you know the sort of lower paid workers…the workers, labour broker workers, contract workers. COSATU has long ceased to represent those workers and that’s been part of the… you know, the process of its unravelling is that it's become a middle class organisation that in a way masquerades as a trade union.

FAZILA FAROUK: On African politics though?

IGHSAAN SCHROEDER: On South African politics, COSATU has been the voice for the middle classes, even at the level of South African politics.

If you take the issues that it has taken up. You know it’s taken up the question of e-tolling. At the same time as it takes up the issue of e-tolling, there’s been a million jobs lost and yet it didn’t take up a campaign, you know, in defence of a million workers who lost their jobs. So the issues that COSATU has chosen to take up is a reflection of that.

I mean, if you take now the changes made to the legislation in August of this year the state has made major legislative changes giving important new rights to precarious workers, to labour broker workers, to contract workers, part time workers and so on.

The labour…COSATU has been dead, dead quite about any of that. There’s no question that COSATU is going to start a campaign of mass awareness-raising amongst these workers or anything like that. But COSATU can comment on the fights you know at Generations you know the soapie, soap drama.

You know, it can comment on things like that because that’s become the style of COSATU’s politics. It is a, you know, an “opinion maker” - whatever you want to call these funny names. It’s not really a fighting formation any longer. It makes statements, it takes on poses and that’s about it.

FAZILA FAROUK: Look alliance politics seems to have played a big role in what has happened. But what do you make of the fact that the ANC did actually say that it’s a tragedy that NUMSA got expelled from COSATU?

IGHSAAN SCHROEDER: Look, I’m not – you know, the alliance politics…the question of the ANC and support for the ANC, was clearly one of the, sort of, factors that lead to NUMSAs ultimate expulsion and the fact the NUMSA is intransigent on that question -- for which I think it must be commended, certainly.

The…so that was certainly a factor. The fact that the ANC can piously now say, you know, it’s a you know it’s a pity that NUMSA has left, is a reflection of an understanding of the role that COSATU has played.

I mean the point that you alluded to earlier about COSATU’s role in South African politics. If you boil it down to its real essence, I mean the role that COSATU has played has been to, you know, to sort of in a way camouflage the real class character of the ANC.

COSATU, in this election we had this year, you know, COSATU still pedals the idea that the ANC is the only vehicle through which the working class is going to realise its interests.

And that’s the real role of COSATU in South African politics. It disguises, you know, the real agenda of the real ruling class and by that I don’t mean the ANC, I mean big business. It disguises the role that COSATU - the ANC - plays in furthering the agenda of the real ruling class. And to that extent, you know, the expulsion of NUMSA, the question mark now against the future of COSATU doesn’t suit the ruling class agenda at all. Because the role that COSATU plays is to disarm you know, to demobilise and to confuse politically.

So instead of the working class arriving at greater – instead of COSATU contributing to a process of the working class arriving at a greater clarity about the true class nature of the ANC - that it’s really a party of big business - COSATU does the opposite, it obfuscates, it confuses and it misleads.

So that is the source of the ANC disquiet that NUMSA has left. It’s not that they’re concerned about COSATU now no longer being a fighting formation, taking up the issues of ordinary workers -- that’s not the concern.

It’s a bit of a setback for the real ruling class agenda, in my opinion.

FAZILA FAROUK: So there have been reports now that NUMSA is going to appeal this expulsion. What do you think of that?

IGHSAAN SCHROEDER:  NUMSA was never wanting to leave COSATU. You know at it special Congress, NUMSA was very, very clear that there was no question of it leaving COSATU.

And I think the, you know, the legal route, is in line firstly with that position that it had that it didn’t want to leave COSATU. The strategy is also in line with the, you know, the sort of taking COSATU to court around Vavi’s suspension. So I’m not surprised by any of those.

The question, of course, is that if NUMSA does get reinstated into COSATU, which is, I think, unlikely even from a legal point of view. Even if it does get put back into COSATU, if the expulsion is overturned, I think the division is now are so deep seated that I can’t see that COSATU would at any point in the future cohere either politically - but even it coheres politically - organizationally it doesn’t exist. There’s no COSATU.

So, I don’t think that NUMSA’s being put back into COSATU is going to make any real difference to the future of COSATU. It’s a – it’s a house of cards.

FAZILA FAROUK: Are they on the right path though to be challenging this expulsion?

IGHSAAN SCHROEDER: I think NUMSA has a responsibility probably to - you know - to demonstrate actively to the rest of the working class that it is serious about worker unity; it doesn’t want to break whatever workers might be left in the federation or you know the extent that the federation that might still represent, you know, workers' interest. I think its correct in demonstrating that it never wanted to leave COSATU. I think tactically that is correct.

I think what is far more important is what NUMSA now does. I think for the working class, for workers more narrowly defined, I think what NUMSA does next is going to be much more important.

We’re sitting in a very fluid period. I think that’s been the case long before NUMSA’s expulsion.

Marikana was a very graphic expression of the fluidity of the old labour movement being exposed as being a sweetheart movement in collapse. But I think the working class is in a process of still trying to discover what do we put in its place. Do we just make new unions or do we try and find new ways of organising through these worker committees, the farm committees and so on?

So we in a very fluid period in our - certainly in our labour history - we’re in a very fluid period.

FAZILA FAROUK: Let’s turn back to COSATU again. NUMSA was a big supporter of its embattled leader, Zwelinzima Vavi. With them being expelled what does this – what do you think this means for his future inside COSATU?

IGHSAAN SCHROEDER: I don’t think he has a future. I think he has to decide either to resign or he’s going to be kicked out. I don’t think there’s any other way that we can see that one working out.

I think, the, you know, the battle lines have been drawn so sharply already that there’s no question of – despite his attempt post his reinstatement to keep a very low profile, to not be particularly sort of contentious or controversial, not too critical. Despite that attempt I think, I think the die has been cast and, as I say, if he doesn’t resign he’s going to be dismissed around this disciplinary inquiry that’s sort of hanging over him.

There’s still the outstanding question of the corruption charges against him, which still has to be finalised as well. And I think, you know, the misconduct and this investigation around his corruption, alleged corruption, I think between those two…between those two, there will be sufficient basis for him to be dismissed.

So I think that’s most likely what’s going to happen, if he doesn’t resign before that.

FAZILA FAROUK: So, since you’re so good at predictions, let’s talk a little bit about what you think about the South African labour movement in a decade from now. Where do you see it?

IGHSAAN SCHROEDER: I think our focus must increasingly be the self organising initiatives of workers. For me, that’s where the focus must be. And that’s what I am saying also is…if NUMSA doesn’t see that as its future, then there’s going to be a brief period where NUMSA might emerge really strong and the preeminent organisation and then it too will go down the route of all these other unions.

So, for me, the - you know the…I don’t think there’s much to lament about the collapse of COSATU and I think when we spoke in March (2012), my attitude was the sooner an organisation like COSATU collapses, the clearer the political task will become for ordinary workers.

I think we’re reaching – we’ve reached that point and in fact we’re sort of well on the road to workers beginning to organise themselves. And that self organisation for me is what holds the key for where the labour movement is going to go.

Now I was…again, I want to stress I think we’re in this very fluid transitional period.

Some workers are taking the route of, they’ve been in these unions, if you take the AMCU (Association of Mining and Construction Workers’ Union) experience, you know workers were in NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), they left NUM, they’ve gone to AMCU. Already we’ve heard the rumblings of discontent in AMCU that in many ways the organisation is undemocratic and unaccountable leadership, etc., you know. So already even in AMCU there are this rumblings of workers wanting to move out.

We’ve seen workers leave their unions and form independent committees. That was very much the Marikana experience. We’ve seen how the massive farmworkers’ strike was cut through these independent farmworker committees.

So, there’s this kind of messy combination of independent initiatives. But in some cases, workers, still, even though they’re tired of their existing union, they still want to form new unions. I think that’s still very much part of this transitional period that we’re going through - that workers are testing out for themselves what works and what doesn’t work.

We could see in the next 5-10 years, however long, we’re going to see this kind of messy combination of these different forms of organisation. Some workers are going to try and form the old, traditional union again and maybe discover - maybe it works better than others. Maybe they might discover actually this thing doesn’t work.

The problems are far deeper seated then just the leadership being corrupt. This fighting tool is no longer sufficient against the bosses.

So I think that in this next period we’re going to see far more workers’ self initiatives. And I think the important point is going to be the extent to which we take those seriously. We try and draw the general lessons from them and see to what extent some of that experience can be generalised.

And we’re going to have side by side with that; we’re going to have, still these old trade union forms like the industrial unions.

So it’s going to be a very, very messy period. I think maybe by the end of that 10 years, it will be a bit clearer, you know, what is the replacement for these old industrial trade unions.

We might have institutions like the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) that maybe look very, very different. I mean, if you just take a practical example.

Historically the CCMA is not allowed institutions - from the workers' side - institutions other then registered trade unions to represent workers. Now with the emergence of these farm committees and worker committees in workplaces that are not taking that traditional form of a registered trade union, the CCMA has a challenge of, does it permit institutions like those to come and represent workers because they are the actual representatives of these workers in these workplaces? Does it permit organisations like that to begin to come and represent workers?

Even the whole LRF (Labour Relations Forum) framework, the model that’s ingrained in the Labour Relations Act, in terms of forms of worker representation, is very much that old industrial trade union model. And although there have been amendments made now, those amendments, even are very much along the lines of the allowing minority unions representation. But it’s still based on this model of the - of the trade union - of the industrial trade union.

I think we’re going to see that that sort of framework that the LRA sets up for forms of worker representation, worker bargaining and forms of bargaining and institutions of bargaining; those will have to change. If they don’t, all the pulling out of hair on the side of employers and the state about violence that attends these strikes and so on, they will remain; because the problem is not just tightening up strike violence, it’s a reflection of this transitional period, that the old framework is finished, it doesn’t work.

So I think we’re going to see something, you know down the line, we’re going to see a very different form of organisation to what we have now. I think we’re going to see very different institutions to which workers bargain.

The CCMA, I think, will look quite different in how it functions and who can come there and who can’t come there. And depending on the intensity of struggles that workers can mount in their own defence, a labour law that will look very different -- that will reflect these change forms of organisation, mediating institutions and bargaining institutions.

I think it will look quite, quite different.

FAZILA FAROUK: Ighsaan Schroeder, thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS.

IGHSAAN SCHROEDER: Thanks for having me. Cool. Bye.

FAZILA FAROUK: And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at the South African Civil Society Information Service. And remember, if you want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at

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