COSATU Should Rebuild Unity on a Workers' Agenda

By Frank Meintjies · 28 Nov 2013

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Picture: Suspended COSATU Secretary General Zwelizima Vavi, Jacob Zuma and COSATU President Sdumo Dlamini courtesy GovernmentZA/flickr.
Picture: Suspended COSATU Secretary General Zwelizima Vavi, Jacob Zuma and COSATU President Sdumo Dlamini courtesy GovernmentZA/flickr.

The recent resignation by NUMSA president Cedric Gina is another rip in the fabric of the trade union federation, COSATU. Given that a breakup of COSATU will weaken labour’s voice as a counterpoint to the strength of capital and the state, this development again raises the question as to what is to be done to save the situation.

By now, all those who follow current affairs are familiar with the features of the split. The broad pattern harks back to COSATU’s formation.

The federation was woven from two main union strands – the feisty general workers unions aligned to the ANC and the strong industrial unions, which at the time favoured a focus on workplace issues. Through skilful ANC leadership and visionary trade union leadership, political disagreements were managed as COSATU was formed and grew to become a formidable force. From my time in COSATU, I recall that, even when tensions resurfaced at key points, for example around the adoption of the Freedom Charter, the different factions avoided going for broke and engaged in patient negotiation. Somehow, the unity of workers – a key COSATU principle – remained paramount. 

But now, a significant number of COSATU trade unions feel that the ANC has not moved rapidly enough to change South Africa’s economy so that the masses have a bigger share in the wealth of the land. They, led by Zwelinzima Vavi, want a far more robust engagement with the ruling party and an open discussion about the value of the alliance. Another group of trade unions, led by COSATU chairperson Sdumo Dlamini, feel this assessment is too harsh. It remains optimistic about the alliance and, while acknowledging failures, believes the ruling party can be improved to reverse the dramatic slowdown in redress and delivery.

The ruling party has not helped those who argue for continuing with the current COSATU-ANC relationship and for remaining in the alliance. The ANC has taken a strong stand on issues such as the E-tolls, the National Development Plan (NDP) and the youth wage subsidy – adopting these despite objections and protest from organised labour. It has refused to submit the youth subsidy scheme to NEDLAC, a policy forum valued by COSATU. Government has also begun implementing the NDP, including a chapter on the economy which COSATU says supports the lowering of wages as part of strategies aimed at making South Africa investor-friendly.

All parties involved in the drama are conscious of competitors, new voices and developments in the wings. New formations such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) and the Association of Miningworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) have served notice that – either individually or collectively – they hope to take over the mantle of being the foremost representative of working class interests. These role-players are relevant to the developments in NUMSA. If NUMSA quits COSATU, these players will no doubt seek to woo it into an alliance.

However, these new formations have their own deficiencies and challenges. A range of questions remains unanswered. Do they have organising capability? For instance, will they be able to organise vulnerable workers? Do they have the leadership skills that it would take to hold such a diverse alliance together? How will they entrench worker leadership in their formation(s)? And will they be able to forge common ground and clear principles that would guide responses to critical policy issues?

For its part, COSATU’s options are narrowing with each week that passes. This is what happens – in organisational development terms – if there is paralysis and if no action is taken to reposition the organisation out of crisis. It is in this light that I suggest that COSATU considers adopting the unification agenda suggested below.

Firstly, COSATU should withdraw from party politics for a period of, say, three years.

COSATU need not take a decision on the tripartite alliance – trying to take such a decision would entrench the stalemate or heighten conflict. Instead, COSATU could just emulate the ANC and show indifference towards the infrequent alliance meetings. Alternately it can use alliance meetings as a platform to call for solidarity for its strategic national campaigns. With regard to next year’s elections, the federation could undertake a broad democracy campaign. It could call on members to vote for parties of their choice and, as active citizens, to follow up and hold elected leaders accountable.

The aim here is not to reduce votes for the ANC. That would be dabbling in party politics, which would be a contradiction. In fact many workers, especially those in public sector unions that have benefitted from the ANC's reign, will vote for the ANC. Rather, the aim with this suggestion is to disentangle the federation from power plays and factional manoeuvres within the ANC, creating space and time for a focus on rebuilding and unity.

Secondly, COSATU should adopt, say, three key major national campaigns that advance working class interests. Such campaigns may focus on addressing economic inequality or seek to improve the environment in which wage negotiations take place. Possible campaigns could include - one that combines the idea of a minimum wage with the demand for food security; mobilisation in support of quality health care that is accessible to all; and a multi-stakeholder drive to expose the conditions of part-time, casual and informal workers in sectors such as the retail industry.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the federation should devise a clear and well-resourced plan to improve trade union practice in its own ranks. In this connection, it should help member unions improve service to members, it should revive and strengthen its web of shop steward ‘locals’ throughout the country and it should offer organiser and shop steward training to all member unions.

This suggested course could lead to a ‘unification congress’ supported by both NUMSA and the federation’s office bearers.

But, at the same time, these proposals are a long shot. Union leaders who see the federation as a stepping-stone to political office – and to the status and pleasures that come with it – will no doubt reject these suggestions out of hand. Yet COSATU desperately needs to make a move. If it continues to fiddle while waiting for reports from task teams and quasi-legal special committees, the federation will, in any event, fragment and wither away.

Meintjies is an independent consultant and a Visiting Research Fellow at Wits School of Public & Development Management.

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29 Nov

I Beg to Differ

I am in fundamental disagreement with this article.

Unity in COSATU can only ever mean the subordination of organised labour to Zuma's predatory and repressive regime.

The ANC is lost as a progressive force. Zuma destroyed it to the point where it is now irrecoverable.

The break up with Cosatu, which is now controlled by the SACP who are Zuma's enforcers, is the best news in a long time for workers, the unemployed and others.

We should celebrate the break up of the federation and build real alternatives (non the EFF's proto-fascist demagoguery) on the left. We need a democratic party that unites workers struggles with community struggles.

In 2013, Cosatu is and can be nothing other than a mechanism for maintaining Zuma's control.

AMCU, Abahlali Base Mijondolo, even EFF are all signs that the ANC's hundred year long control over the forces of liberation is now in its last days. Zuma will go down in history as the man that destroyed the ANC - with the support of the KZN mafia - Nzimande, Dlamini etc.

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29 Nov

COSATU Is Finished after Marikana

When NUM officials shot at striking workers at Marikana, the event that preceded the massacre they inflected a terminal injury on COSATU.

The stable door cannot be fasted now. The horse is bolted.

This is a backward looking that completely misses the urgency of the new moment that is here.

The ANC is fragmenting and COSATU is finished.

We can't go backwards now. We have to build new movements out of the ashes of the ANC.

AMCU, NUMSA, the social movements and, if they can jettison their appalling leadership, EFF too, will unite on the left. The DA, COPE, Agang and the ANC will unite on the right.

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1 Dec

Valid Views

Very valid viewpoints - can't argue with that. The beliefs and aspirations - as well as the attempt to make sense of developments - you convey are as valid as any other opinion expressed on the site. They help to take the debate to a higher level.

It would be great if those who are cobbling together the new alliance/alliances, or others in the know, shared information with the public. Who are the leaders and what past experiences or struggles do they arise from? What would such an alliance stand for - they have a common enemy, but what are their short - and medium term strategic goals? How would this diverse collection of actors hold together? Apart from elections - what kind of campaigns would they mount?

I have heard that some (proponents of "new") refer to their initiative as SA's equivalent of the MDC (a combination of unions and opponents of the ruling party). Is this true, and what would that mean? So much is taking place in behind the scenes that it is difficult to know what's going on and what is being proposed. Regardless of answers to these questions, the emergence of new actors are important (for democracy and to advance economic transformation) and should make debates in next year's elections particularly vibrant.