What about the Workers? The Old is Dead, the New is Emerging

By Leonard Gentle · 12 Jun 2014

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: Daniel Arauz/flickr
Picture: Daniel Arauz/flickr

Two issues that journalists file under “labour news” continue to make headlines – the one inspirational, the other ludicrous. They show two very different faces of the now tired refrain of “20 years of democracy”.

In the one corner is the on-going platinum workers’ strike in which 70,000 workers lead a struggle to bury the tradition of cheap migrant labour that has been the cornerstone of wealth accumulation in this country. On the other is the spectre of the sad decline of the once mighty Cosatu, reduced to unsavoury infighting as a result of being drawn into the current traditions of wealth accumulation and political patronage.

The AMCU mineworkers show us how much personal sacrifice and determination can inspire a sense in us that a very different South Africa is possible. Cosatu’s collapse should give us pause for thought that it once stirred similar inspiration in the struggle against apartheid.
Of course Cosatu may formally live in the way conservative union husks such as the Trade Union Council of South Africa did for many years. But its days as a force for social justice are clearly over.

Its biggest affiliate, metal workers union, NUMSA, is being threatened with expulsion for breaking with the ANC while nine affiliates call on its president to convene a Special Congress and want the courts to adjudicate. SAMWU, the municipal workers union’s staff and workers occupied its head office due to allegations that over R140m went missing from its coffers. The chemical/paper/wood union, CEPPWAWU, is currently threatened with de-registration by the Department of Labour for failing to submit regular membership updates.

Teachers’ union, SADTU, recently expelled its president for being too close to erstwhile-suspended Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelenzima Vavi. Vavi, reinstated to his position by the courts, was forced to carry out electioneering for the ANC in South Africa’s 2104 general elections. He earned the ire of the ANC in the first place for accusing the ruling party of turning COSATU into its “labour desk”.

Finally, Cosatu’s onetime biggest affiliate the mineworkers union, NUM, has collapsed in the platinum sector and only holds on to gold workers by dint of centralised bargaining with the Chamber of Mines.

And who offers to mediate COSATU’s disputes? Why…the ANC! You couldn’t make this up if you tried.              

Cosatu’s demise is no cause for celebration or indifference. Forged in the cauldron of thousands of strikes and campaigns and rightly celebrated for being at the centre of the resistance movement against apartheid and for being the first within the mass movement to begin to formulate new policies for a revolutionary South Africa, Cosatu’s history is a noble one written in workers’ blood.   

That it should implode is tragic. That it should disintegrate in such an inglorious manner is farce.

We now have the longest strike in South Africa’s mining history - a source of renewal for the working class - and it passes Cosatu and its affiliates by. Worse, the NUM actively tries to break the strike, but doesn’t even have the credibility and muscle to do so.

South Africa has also just had an election in which more than a million people voted for a party that embraces the language of militant left wing politics - nationalisation, redistribution of wealth, and insisting that ministers and public officials be forced to use public services. This was the language of Cosatu in a bygone era. These days Cosatu finds itself alongside a government against whom all these slogans are being directed.       
We need to trace this disjunct between the demise of Cosatu and the rise of a new movement by cutting through layers of contemporary history on multiple levels.
The immediate, first level, can be traced to the makeup of disgruntled forces, which overthrew Thabo Mbeki. Cosatu along with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC Youth League played a key role installing Jacob Zuma in the presidency. But whereas this fall-out was the immediate cause of the decline of Cosatu, we can see that at a much deeper level, Cosatu’s deterioration is also linked to the federation achieving a corrupting niche in the democratic dispensation after 1994.

When South Africa’s transition to democracy was being negotiated, Cosatu wanted the state to legislate a legal duty to bargain on the part of employers and impose centralised bargaining. It also wanted the new democratic state to provide a high degree of social protection to workers. Big Business, in turn, wanted maximum labour flexibility, limited state intervention and little social protection.

The outcome was that labour got its plethora of rights and institutions, such as the Labour Relations Act and NEDLAC, but that these were highly dependent on its power to organise, as the state remained detached. Big Business on the other hand, got its demands for labour flexibility, as there were no laws imposing any kind of criminal sanction or legal enforceability. 
The whole system presumed a scenario whereby Big Business would get the benefits of labour flexibility, industrial peace and skilled labour and Big Labour would get skills, job security, higher wages and a seat at the table of all labour market institutions.

But neither the state nor business kept their side of the bargain. The government unveiled GEAR and its neoliberal prescriptions without any consideration for its labour partner and business, instead of seeking beneficiation and skilled labour, took the gap - at least the biggest monopolies did - unbundled, financialised and then jumped ship to London, New York and Melbourne.
Cosatu was left with nowhere to turn. After responding with anger in the early days of GEAR, it has recently been happy to brush off the ANC’s betrayals, while its leaders, organisers and even shop stewards rake in money for attending NEDLAC meetings, SETAs and a myriad other tripartite and centralised bargaining forums.

And then there’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE)…
Whereas the ANC government formalised and accelerated BEE after 1994 and made this a condition of state tenders by including it in crucial pieces of legislation, BEE was actually first initiated by Sanlam’s Metropolitan Life followed by Anglo American prior to 1994.

Apart from the first layer of beneficiaries, such as the Motlanas, an important feature of Anglo’s unbundling was to seek a partnership with the unions for its company JCI and mining operations. NUM started this partnership using its access to workers’ provident funds and then setting up its own investment company. This was followed by clothing and textile workers union, SACTWU, and commercial, catering and allied workers union, SACCAWU and then practically every Cosatu affiliate, including Cosatu itself that set up Kopano ke Matla, which absurdly invests in e-tolls while the federation protests against this road privatisation.

Trade unions have now become capitalists.

As I have argued before, at its deepest level, the underlying causes of the problems within Cosatu lie in the major structural changes that have affected the working class under neoliberal capitalism alongside the re-alignment of Cosatu’s membership. Over 20 years, South Africa’s working class has essentially become an unemployed, casualised, semi-homeless mass; while Cosatu has changed in composition from a predominantly blue-collar working class federation in its heyday to the largely public sector white-collar group that it is today.

Cosatu’s changing composition has seen the centre of gravity of mass struggles in South Africa today shift towards the township poor that have been waging service delivery struggles for the last 15 years. These have been struggles largely waged by sections of the working class who are unemployed, the youth and women carrying the burden of the reproduction of the working class.

With Cosatu reduced to a morally-compromised coterie of middle class leaders hanging on to state institutions, negotiations forums and investments companies and implicated in engineering political career-pathing, its implosion was an accident waiting to happen. The break up of the Zuma-pact has just accelerated the incorrigible rot. It is to NUMSA’s credit that it is showing militant defiance to this caricature of what was once a noble force.

With the ongoing saga of the divisions within Cosatu, there is amongst many on the left a sense that some kind of moral nadir has been reached.

There are also those who wish to put the issue of politics at the centre of Cosatu’s crisis, but with two divergent paths to their critique and possible remedy.

On the right the story goes that Cosatu unions have been too political and have sacrificed workers interests for political gain. From this side the call goes out for unions to go “back to basics” - meaning focusing on pure collective bargaining and servicing members.

On the Left, the analysis is that Cosatu has adopted the wrong politics, kowtowing to the ANC’s neoliberal policies. It’s not a problem of Cosatu being too political, but not being political enough. From these quarters the answer is that if Cosatu were to embrace revolutionary politics then the problem of worker disaffection would be solved.

In a sense this latter critique is valid, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Unless we begin to talk about a much deeper structural analysis of the source of the trade union problem we will end up merely grafting left wing slogans on top of structures that are no longer representative of the fighting battalions of the working class.

Should we be in the depths of despair at the imminent collapse of the labour movement or on the cusp of a new upturn in struggles of the working class?

NUMSA itself is caught in a conundrum. On the one hand pitching its tent on the ground of the United Front, an initiative seeking common ground with hundreds of existing working class struggles in communities; and on the other, held captive by the need to honour its obligations to save Cosatu from itself. Having done so much to inspire activists with its Special Congress resolutions of December 2013, NUMSA is in danger of misreading the mood in the country amongst working class militants, as it keeps its focus on the rot in Cosatu - whether Vavi stays in his job or not; whether a special congress will be held or not; and whether the ANC’s “mediation” should be allowed to take its course or not.

In a way NUMSA is caught in a very traditional notion of the left – that any hope of advancing working class struggles depends on trade unions, as the most organised force.

But trade unions in all their various forms are all products of history, of past struggles of workers. Trade unions are not given as fixed forms, which obey some kind of industrial logic. We have known craft unions and industrial unions. We have known general unions, local unions, national unions and even company unions. For many years some unions excluded women and now in some countries there are women-only trade unions. In short, there is no such thing as a typical trade union.

What we in South Africa know as trade unions are the result of past struggles, past victories, compromises and choices. Other outcomes would have produced different forms. And it is appropriate to ask whether those choices are still appropriate for the period of neoliberal capitalism today.

Over the course of its history the working class has thrown up a plethora of different kinds of organisations from benefit societies to clubs, cultural groups, co-operatives, trade unions, political parties and social movements. In no country in the world are the trade unions, taken as a whole, the majority organisational expression of workers even, of the employed workers. To be sure, South Africa has a relatively large trade union density - at some 30% - but in some major industrialised countries, like the U.S., this can drop to less than 12%.

Nevertheless, despite this “numbers question”, many have argued that trade unions are unique amongst all the different forms of working class organisation in that they contest the terms of exploitation of the working class, so their social weight and significance is far greater than their numbers.

But is it historically true that trade unions have always played this role more than other organisational forms?
In Britain at the turn of the 20th century, workers who had set up trade unions but had no political party, set up the Labour Party. Then as the parliamentary party shifted towards the centre, the trade unions with membership greater than the Labour Party, often occupied a space to the left of the party. In Germany, however, the original Social Democratic Party preceded the trade unions vastly exceeding them in terms of membership. There the trade unions occupied a space on the extreme right wing of the party. In Brazil, in the 1980s, the trade unions set up the Workers Party known as the PT. When Lula came into power and shifted the PT to the right, the labour unions of the Unified Workers’ Central (CUT) were dragged rightwards with Lula. It was a social movement, the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), which became more representative of the working class in Brazil.

In South Africa, for the last 12 years, community-based social movements have been at the forefront of working class struggles while the trade unions have largely stuck to LRA-regulated wage struggles and generally insured labour peace.           
But then, along came the platinum workers…

These are the workers who sowed the whirlwind of the Marikana massacre, the inheritors of the self-organised strike committees that sparked the 2012 strike wave that drew in 100,000 workers across the country who have joined AMCU.

AMCU, in turn, was formed by ex-NUM officials unfairly dismissed by the union and disgruntled workers sick of NUM’s cosy, sweetheart relations with the mine bosses. Apart from this, AMCU is quite a “traditional” union, apolitical and an affiliate of the National Council of Trade Unions. 

Some commentators have bemoaned AMCU’s lack of structures and its apparent unpreparedness for a strike of these dimensions. True, AMCU was ill equipped and its pressure on new members to disband the strike committees and elect shop stewards in the tradition of NUM was not what workers expected.

But its lack of structures and its “inexperience” may be precisely what made it difficult for the AMCU leadership to impose a settlement on its own members. Unlike the corporate version of events - so easily swallowed by the embedded financial journalists and the rest of the media - it is not AMCU leaders keeping workers out of work by “deluding” them or making false promises. Rather it is the stubborn, uncompromising workers who have held the AMCU leadership accountable and who have defied the mine bosses’ attempts to divide them (as seen by mine bosses sending text messages to workers directly).

So does the imminent demise of Cosatu in the context of a vibrant and growing movement of community-based struggles of the working class, the post-Marikana strike wave and the struggles of the platinum workers today call on us us to mourn Cosatu’s decline or should we instead be celebrating the rise of new forms of organisation and a new movement?

An old slogan of the 1980s shouted out, “Don’t mourn, mobilise!” This is your answer.

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/2035.

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


Rory Verified user
13 Jun


As someone in my mid-seventies my gut feeling triggered by the Marikana massacre was that Marikana marked a point when we returned to the struggle for social and economic justice in our country a struggle which, since '94, seems to have been progressively side-lined and ignored by the new ruling elite. This article puts these gut feelings nicely into context.

Respond to this comment