The Cosatu central committee meeting began with a roar and ended in a barely audible whimper. Some say the lukewarm resolution was well considered and thoughtful. Others say Cosatu decided not to burn its hands by trying to wrest the iron from the flames while it was still hot. Or should we ask, is it trying to stave off the inevitable? By SIPHO HLONGWANE.
Sorry, comrades. That’s the conclusion we’re coming away with from the central committee meeting of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Having had a back row (literally) view to the Cosatu sausage factory, we can’t help but feel the federation had a long, deep look into the abyss and decided it would rather not make the leap.
It is strange, actually. It usually happens the other way around at these sorts of things: the Cosatu meetings begin very drearily, build momentum, and end with a bang. One that requires the ANC to respond with a very strong statement that stops just short of telling the unions to kindly knob off.
This time, the conference began with some properly acidic discussion documents and ended with an incomplete conference declaration that deferred some of the toughest resolutions to Cosatu’s central executive committee meeting later in the year.
There are two ways to read this. You can either decide the customary bad time-keeping forced Cosatu to defer some of the meatier discussions to a later time. Or that it chose the easier path of adopting what everyone agreed upon and decided to hold the more contentious discussion behind closed doors; away from the glare of the tattle-tale media and the ANC.
We’ll hash out the first theory first, because it requires a far less liberal application of Occam’s razor. The meeting did run way over time. The time allocated for the different commissions to discuss the various documents was way too short, as it always is. But nobody wants to sit through an 11-day meeting just to come out with a three-page document – not even Zwelinzima Vavi. Hence the hurried pace which produced poor documents such as the draft resolution on the “National Democratic Revolution”, which Vavi himself admitted was such a dog’s breakfast that debating it on the floor of the central committee would take far too long.
That’s the explanation the Cosatu leadership gave at the conference after the last day’s proceedings. “We did not have the discussion concluded because the political commission on the NDR disappointed us with poor writing,” Vavi said.
We could take a giant step back and take into consideration all the messy workings of the sausage factory and ponder over what they could mean for the unadopted resolutions and even what this might mean for Cosatu.
Cosatu’s president and the secretary general spent a bit of time wagging their finger at the media at a late press briefing on Thursday night over previous reports that suggested there could be divisions in Cosatu on the adoption of crucial issues.
Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini said, “As you have been observing at this central committee, this was a great display of unity. Even when comrades don’t agree on issues, they agree to take the discussion in a particular direction. I say this to dispel any myth of disunity in the federation. There is cohesion in the leadership of this federation”.
That’s not quite what we observed in the plenary session, however. The unions were pulling in different directions in several key areas. The issue of the succession debate in the ANC wasn’t discussed by the central committee, but we gained the sense some would have preferred it was. It is clear there is a great discontent in the federation over Zuma. The question is what the unions should, and would be prepared to, do.
The declaration of the central committee meeting says, “The central committee did not engage in a potentially divisive ANC leadership debate, but did issue a stark warning to the ANC-led government that if they are to retain popular support they must stop dithering and zigzagging, pull their socks up and start implementing all the policies of the Polokwane conference and 2009 elections, particularly in its five priority areas.”
Vavi elaborated further on this point at a press conference, saying Cosatu wanted the ANC to succeed, since it still believed the tripartite alliance was the correct vehicle to implement the five priority areas outlined in the Polokwane resolution.
The discussion on the local government elections and the lessons learnt there? Lots of potential for discord there. That too was deferred to the central executive committee.
Another area of difficulty was Cosatu’s discussions on the New Growth Path document. Some unions wanted to reject it wholesale. Those tended to be the ones affected by its main thrust, such as the mineworkers union and the teachers union. Others wanted to adopt it wholesale. The congress declaration struck the middle ground, choosing to endorse the NGP broadly while condemning its lack of real socialist colour.
The unions are most certainly not united on these issues and the leadership chose the compromise path rather than having a large, unhappy affiliate on its hands. To be fair, the NGP is a very complicated document and the questions it tries to answer are as complicated. Cosatu’s resolution on the NGP is two-pages long. It would have been impossible to address the all its concerns in just two pages.
The resolution on the living wage campaign twice calls for the scrapping of the property clause in the Constitution, calling it a “stumbling block to the redistribution of land”. The ANC Youth League issued a statement late on Thursday night, basically claiming Cosatu agreed with it on the economic front. A quick skim through the Cosatu papers would suggest that it does. But the devil, as always, is in the detail. While Cosatu does call for an end to the property clause, it wants the land to be used to expand South Africa’s manufacturing capacity. It also wants the government to turn South Africa into an industrial economy by pumping huge amounts of resources into the manufacturing industry. No talk about nationalising mines.
The Youth League should be careful about patting Cosatu’s back so eagerly. Vavi also mulled over Cosatu’s ideological battle, asking whether it shouldn’t now consider the rise of the “right wing demagogy” as the biggest threat facing the federation, and not unemployment. It is obviously really worried about that.
What the unions were rather firm about is the labour broker issue. Simply put, if the government doesn’t take concrete steps (an act on the floor of Parliament) towards banning them, unions will strike before the year is out.
The people who will be most relieved about all of this is the ANC. Not only has Cosatu decided not to force it to open up the succession debate (saying it would distract from the real issues), it has issued a rather toothless call to it to get to work on the Polokwane resolutions. To which the ANC can always say, “But we are”. There’s no real threat of anything other than great displeasure should the Zuma administration not deliver. Behind closed doors, Zuma can always say to the unions the leadership style they want from him is precisely what saw Mbeki kicked out in the first place. Rather like Zuma himself, Cosatu chose union solidarity over a disruptively confrontational stance.
The tripartite alliance will split up when the concerns and demands on union members become distinctly different from those of ANC members. We’re already seeing tiny tremors of that, with the unions which forced draft resolutions to be deferred. If these unions manage to get enough Cosatu affiliates on their side, they may decide to elect an executive committee that will be far more unfriendly with the ANC as a way of getting it to do what they want. When that fails to work, after a tumult of strikes, they could decide to walk away from the alliance. It’s not a distinct possibility for now, but the whispers of it are already in the air. DM
Photo: Cosatu central committee, Daily Maverick.