Cosatu: Riding the Crest of a Wave in Rough Seas

By Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen · 17 Sep 2009

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If a day were a long time in politics, then a decade would be akin to an eternity. As Cosatu members gather for their 10th national congress, they will cast their minds back to 1999, when the labour federation hosted a special national congress.  The primary task of hosting the “special” congress was electing a ‘new leadership’, as many Cosatu national office bearers were ‘deployed’ to serve in the ANC government after the second democratic election.

However, the congress signalled the  “drawing of lines in the sand,” as the then-Chairperson of the ANC, Mosiuoa Lekota accused Cosatu of lacking ‘revolutionary discipline’ due to its criticism of government policy. After his speech, there was a momentary and collective silence, before workers started a defiant song that defended their right to contribute to the ANC, but also indicating that Cosatu would fight for what it believed to be true. 

This encounter was the start of a battle for the hearts and minds, not just of Cosatu itself, but the strategies of the Tripartite Alliance. Things have however changed and Cosatu enters its national congress in 2009 in a significantly stronger relationship with its alliance partners, having taken significant political risks in its support for Jacob Zuma -- but more crucially, having played an important role shaping policy within the African National Congress.

What has led to this change of fortune?

At its core, Cosatu is a campaigning union. There might be some ideologically laden fisticuffs on the difference between ‘social movement unionism’ and ‘transformative unionism’, but there is broad agreement that Cosatu retains a strong capacity for campaigning. Before the succession battle in the ANC, it reliably brandished a support base, over four successive years, to protest against government’s privatisation plans and later around the slogan ‘crush poverty, create quality jobs’. 

Moreover, it built a strong and formidable alliance with civil society organisations around fiscal policy, social security and on HIV/Aids. In doing this, Cosatu consciously crafted a strategy for speaking on wider issues than those at the work place and deliberately focused on broader developmental issues.

Importantly, it is these campaigns that not only preceded the ‘succession politics’, but also served as a basis for mobilisation especially amongst ANC activists.

This approach earned Cosatu the ire of many in the ANC who argued against it playing a ‘political role’. Most notably, this argument was made in the so-called ‘briefing notes’ that argued that trade unions have overstepped their mark and were functioning more as a political party. 

The attempts to rally the ANC behind the ‘briefing notes’, however, hinted at a chasm between the leadership’s perspective of Cosatu and a rank-and-file perspective. Importantly, amongst the core activists in the ANC were shop stewards and union members, often holding dual membership with the SACP. At this stage, many predicted that the ‘left wing’ of the Tripartite Alliance would breakaway. Instead, the breakaway occurred in the ANC with the emergence of COPE, ironically with Lekota at the head of this breakaway.

Criticism, however, not only emerged from within the ANC, but amongst the leftwing activists and organised business. Leftwing activists argued that Cosatu was too beholden to the ruling party to be a reliable ally or indeed lead the fight against a ‘neo-liberal onslaught’. 

In sharp contrast, organised business found Cosatu to be overly radicalised and using its clout to squeeze out other voices in the policy debate. In such circumstances, it is instructive to note that despite a multitude of voices, Cosatu maintained strong relationships with religious organisations, non-governmental organisations and a range of campaigns. 

In fact, it is through these alliances in civil society that Cosatu built arguments for significant policy shifts in government policy, as well as found reliable allies for its campaigns. In being more persuasive at the coalface of development practice with activists, Cosatu has demonstrated how important coalition building is in a democracy.

Today Cosatu cannot take these relationships with progressive civil society for granted, especially due to the impact of succession politics in the ANC. For instance, Cosatu found itself supporting Jacob Zuma together with sections of civil society, which have not been its allies. 

Recently, some of these groupings have come together around a religious based agenda distinct from the core campaigns of Cosatu. In another instance, the Dinokeng Scenarios supports a focus by civil society for improving public service delivery.

Civil society will thus become even more contested and have a multiplicity of agendas. This offers a significant opportunity as it brings new players into the public policy arena, requiring Cosatu to convince emerging policy actors about the value of its stance.

Amongst progressive civil society – especially in religious organisations and the non-governmental sector – the post-Polokwane environment has raised significant questions about their own strategic relationship with Cosatu. 

The central worry is whether like many vibrant trade unions in post-colonial societies, Cosatu would become docile by too closely linking itself to the dominant political party. This matters a great deal for organisations struggling for “social justice,” as translating inspiring but marginal ideas into policy, is heightened with the support of as powerful an actor as Cosatu.

So far Cosatu has demonstrated an astonishing capacity to keep a focus on its members, most visible in recent strike action. However, its ability to build both strong campaigning alliances in society as well as to represent its members at workplaces will come under significant pressure, as calls for wage restraint and labour law flexibility will be cast as representing not the narrow interests that they serve, but rather the national interest.

The task of convincing society about its policy platforms is made much easier because there is a strong alignment with the ANC elections manifesto.

But, there is a danger that the important debate on how we meet our developmental goals, will be sidetracked by an alliance politics that could degenerate into petty politics and posturing. Cosatu would be well aware that the coalition surrounding Jacob Zuma included a plethora of ideological and class interests. This means that the contradictions within the so-called Zuma coalition are likely to emerge, and if given credence will dominate politics over the next decade.

Early indications are that fights over senior positions in the ANC could dominate alliance politics. It is predictable that those arguing that Cosatu is too influential will attempt to reign in its influence.

The role of Cosatu is, however, to provide leadership to refocus these debates over the parochial questions to deeper and practical questions about how to tackle the developmental challenges that we face.

In undertaking this task, Cosatu would need to reflect on its own composition and role. The changes in the labour market mean that there is greater female participation in the labour market, but that young African females remain the most excluded from formal employment. At the same time, it needs to find ways to engage with unemployed youth. 

Potentially, Cosatu could provide a platform to amplify these voices, and refocus itself and our society on our number one challenge, which is creating jobs. It will thus need to place emphasis on the structural nature of poverty, inequality and unemployment, as it engages, for instance, with the process leading to South Africa’s first long term development plan. In some senses, this is about reasserting class content into the ‘national question’.

In 2009, Cosatu finds itself in unfamiliar territory, being in a position of relative strength. However, if it casts its mind back over the last decade it will remember that it cannot take this position for granted. 

The Cosatu congress would thus need to avoid the temptation of triumphalism, because it needs to re-construct its relevance in a period likely to be characterised by intense debate and contestation. Given its track record, it is however likely that the leadership of Cosatu will meet this challenge.

Hassen is the founder of Zapreneur and Proposal Desk, both websites aimed at answering the question, "Can the Internet help South African small business?"

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