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19 December 2014 11:50 (South Africa)
South Africa

2013: Cosatu's year of introspection

  • Sipho Hlongwane
  • South Africa
C:\fakepath\sipho cosatu 2013

Mangaung didn’t quite pan out as the Cosatu had hoped. This could be a blessing in disguise for it, as it has more urgent business to attend to anyway: placing its own house in order. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

If Cosatu lost at the ANC’s elective conference in December, it was in failing to convince the ruling party to ditch the economic plan crafted under the guiding hands of Trevor Manuel and Cyril Ramaphosa for its own. As it is, the National Development Plan has been heralded by President Jacob Zuma as the next big thing for the party, and the union federation has once again found itself ignored. 

After Mangaung, the federation must deal with the continuing labour unrest in the farmlands and the aftermath of Marikana, while campaining for its economic policies from outside of the ANC. The brittle relationship between ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi – the tensions erupted at the conference when the latter spoke out of turn – will continue to deteriorate as e-tolling and the Protection of State Information Bill are bound to be continuing sticking points. If the last year did not end well, the new one doesn’t promise to be easier.

Still, despite the headlines about Cosatu’s loss on the economic reform front, a closer look at the ANC’s Mangaung resolutions shows that the federation actually got a lot.

Speaking to journalists during the ANC’s conference, Vavi said that the federation wanted stronger state intervention policies.

“So when you talk about land reform you want to see a stronger role from the state. When we talk about industrial policy... we want to see a stronger role of the state. In particular, a state that is going to intervene and make sure that intervention is in the interest of the ordinary people,” he said.

“[The state] must carefully consider where it wants to involve itself. We must not develop state capitalism. We know the disastrous consequences of that, but we want an active state.

“The government needed to have a serious role in the mining industry, which included strategic nationalisation of particular minerals. This could help with other objectives such industrialisation,” Vavi said.

Cosatu demanded that the ANC enact tighter labour regulation and greater state intervention in the economy, such as a state-controlled banking system and 100% state control of the Reserve Bank.

The federation’s second largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), wanted outright nationalisation of economic sectors such as mining and energy.

Speaking after the economic transformation commission ended, the ANC NEC member Malusi Gigaba said that wholesale nationalisation was off the tables. However, the resolution says that the state will increase state ownership in strategic sectors where deemed appropriate, on the balance of evidence. Depending on the 'evidence', it may turn out to be much closer to the Cosatu's position than it appears at the first sight.

On the land question, the ANC agreed with Cosatu that the pace of transformation was far too slow, and promised to accelerate the process to establish the office of the Land Valuer-General. The willing-buyer-willing-seller at market prices principle is facing a rapidly-approaching expiration date.

Cosatu is getting its beefier state intervention, without the gumboots nationalisation that only NUMSA wants anyway. On banks, monetary policy and the Reserve Bank, it was disappointed.

In spite of this, the federation plans nationwide strike action in January to press for radical economic transformation. 

“Whilst 1994 marked an important breakthrough and a crucial turning point in the struggles of the working class in South Africa, the democracy that it has ushered in has yet to deliver tangible material benefits to the vast majority of the working class,” Cosatu said in the statement that announced the planned action.

The matter of its politics is not just about its relationship with the ANC. The federation was embarrassed when, just days before Mangaung, the Forum for Public Dialogue, commissioned by Cosatu to survey 2,000 shop stewards, said that the political views of these people differed sharply from the top leadership’s line. 

“The survey has found that Cosatu shop stewards want nationalisation, they have no confidence in the South African Communist Party, and they want Cosatu to form a labour party. On leadership – the study found that the majority of Cosatu shop stewards [did] not support Jacob Zuma’s re-election for the position of president of the ANC (they were divided between Jacob Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe). This was despite Cosatu’s central executive committee’s decision to support Zuma’s bid for a second term,” the report said.

The publication of the report was hastily postponed till March 2013. The question of the distance between the top union leadership and the people on the ground is becoming apparent, especially in the wake of the Marikana massacre and the beating that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) took as a result. This issue is perhaps even more pertinent than the relationship Cosatu has with the ANC. It is, after all, a labour organisation first and foremost. 

It wouldn’t harm the federation to let the economic question and ANC policy alone while focusing on repairing the relationship it has with its own members. 

In his book on Cosatu, A Paradox of Victory, labour expert Sakhela Buhlungu wrote: “…One of these is a form of democratic rupture whereby key union leaders become alienated from union members, such that in the long term their outlook changes as they begin to think and act like members of the power elite that the movement is seeking to displace – business people, politicians, bureaucrats and other layers of the middle classes. When this occurs we witness what C Wright Mills noted in his discussion of American union leaders in the 1940s: ‘The labour leader is a powerful man: he accumulates power and he exerts it over the union member and over property’.”

Castigated at the time by Cosatu, Buhlungu’s point has been accepted by Vavi. “We have fallen far short of the targets set by the [2015] plan, to a significant extent because of our own failure to implement agreed plans and programmes," Vavi wrote. "Part of the reason for this is an insufficient focus on the core business of the federation because of an overemphasis on political contestation,” he added in his secretariat report to the Cosatu congress last year.

After disappointment in Mangaung, and not becoming any friendlier with the ANC, Cosatu could just find that 2013 is the year for it to expend its energies on fixing the cracks within more than those between it and the ruling party. What’s more, this may turn out to be the organisation’s most pressing task indeed. DM

Photo: COSATU supporters during the first day of COSATU's 11th National Congress, celebrated at the Gallagher Estate in Midrand. (Jordi Matas)

  • Sipho Hlongwane
  • South Africa


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