Cosatu's central executive committee meetings are heady things. Uniquely in the alliance, it's the one group that makes decisions quickly. Toll roads, labour laws, strike violence, corruption. These representatives of 2 million people have a view on everything. But there are two main issues that will have an impact on our short-term future. Their views on Mangaung. And their views on Cosatu. On Thursday they gave us an update on how this war is going. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
It's been a rough ride for Cosatu recently. Asked whether tensions within the ANC over leadership (i.e. the battle between President Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema/Fikile Mbalula) had affected the federation, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was forthright. "Yes, ...and it was time for a face-to-face discussion, to call a spade a spade". He laments, "We are becoming increasingly incoherent, too many of leadership on key issues are speaking in manners that are moving in different directions.” The subtext is simple. The National Union of Mineworkers' Frans Baleni and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa's Irvin Jim have not been getting along.
There have been several reasons for this, but two are key. Vavi said last year he'd step down in 2012 and the other blokes want his job. And they both support different factions in the ANC. Baleni is with his former general secretary Gwede Mantashe in the ANC, and thus, it would seem, that will translate into support for Zuma. His union's opposition to mine nationalisation is part of that. Jim, however, has flirted with backing nationalisation and changing the property clause in the Constitution. To over-simplify, Baleni's politics mirror Zuma's, Jim's, Malema's. Because these two unions are seen as the most influential within Cosatu (although Nehawu has more members), the grass has been trampled as the elephants have fought.
It seems unity has “transpired” here. But which way has it gone? Well, as always, you have to read between the lines, nothing means what it should. But listening to Vavi as he read out from the CEC statement (agreed to by all its members), Zuma is the big winner here. There is a reiteration that, "The new tendency of tenderpreneurs represent[sic] a serious threat to the revolution, and must be isolated and exposed" – i.e. Malema and company are the baddies. Follow that up with, "We need to defend the ANC's leadership collective elected at Polokwane against the new tendency", and it seems pretty easy to decode.
But Vavi takes it further. In response to a question, he says the policies formulated and decided upon at Polokwane must stay. There is no need for any major change. Decoded: no to nationalisation etc. He also says we shouldn't be changing "leadership just for the hell of it, for a factional agenda that has nothing to do with helping the poor". There has been some talk of a little bit of flirtatious behaviour between Malema and Vavi of late. Remember a few months ago, Zuma arrived at Cosatu's central committee meeting? You could hear a pin drop as he walked in. It was a staged humiliation. For those of us used to the huge jubilation Zuma usually receives, it was a politically defining moment.
Well, all that's changed. What is not necessarily clear, at this point, is whether that is because of a suddenly rediscovered love for Zuma, or because union leaders think their interests are very different from those of Malema. In other words, they'd rather stay with the devil they know, than give in to the "right wing demagogue".
During that central committee meeting Vavi had said there "Is a fight underway for the soul of the ANC, and we don't know how it will end". As a result, I make a habit of asking him regularly how that fight is going. His answer on Thursday was interesting: "We hope progressive people organised through the branches will have the final say". In other words, Cosatu and SACP members should, hopefully, outnumber the ANC Youth League's members in the battle for ANC branches.
It wouldn't be a Cosatu CEC meeting without a little bit of rage against the machine. Apart from the fact the meeting "occurred during the backdrop of a world in crisis" – capitalist crisis that is – there is also plenty of venting over government's plans for labour laws. There are some plans to make unions liable for damage caused during strikes and protests, along with moves at the National Economic Development and Labour Council to make it harder for strikes to last as long as they do. Oh no, not on Cosatu's watch. "All these proposals are a direct attack on trade unions. The link between the withdrawal of the right to picket and union liability is particularly worrying". And the final insult, "they echo the DA's private member's Bill". Not much more one can say to irritate the ANC really.
And then there's the perennial Cosatu attack on ideological matters affecting government. In other words, privatisation and outsourcing – with particular regard to the National Health Insurance scheme. Cosatu will have no truck with public private partnerships, no truck with a multi-payer system and absolutely no truck with a new VAT levy. Its point is that none of those systems will lead to universal health coverage. Or, slightly more accurately (to us filthy capitalists, at any rate), the rich must pay. Coming from where Cosatu does, that's perfectly understandable, and its constituency would desert in droves were it to be any other way.
Somehow, it seems Cosatu has got itself over the hump. It is now focused. Some of the big battles within it are over for the moment. How this truce was reached, we don't know. Maybe Vavi has decided to stay on, and thus the Jim/Baleni battle has been postponed for now. He won't tell us yet, of course. Or maybe, as so often in our politics, it's easy to agree on who we don't like. Either way, Malema and that bloc can count on a more focused federation in the battles ahead. DM