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23 November 2014 06:17 (South Africa)
South Africa

Cosatu: Too distracted for their own class

  • Greg Nicolson
  • South Africa
greg-cosatu-subbedm.jpg

While Cosatu battles itself over access to power, the purchase and sale of buildings, and other mundane issues, the platinum strike has put workers’ issues at the top of the national agenda... and Cosatu has nothing to do with it. By GREG NICOLSON.

The funny thing about the platinum strike, into its fifth month, is it’s both uniting and dividing workers. Around the mines, AMCU members are not only rallying behind a better wage, but fighting for their broader class interests, holding a middle finger to a system that screwed their grandfathers, their fathers and hasn’t done much better for themselves while some people get stinking rich, whether or not they have any legitimate claim on the wealth of the land. Purely due to the length of the strike, support, or at least knowledge about the mineworkers’ situation, has increased as the issues in the streets of Marikana are taken to the bars of Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Yet right when support for working class issues is rallying around the militant core of unionists, the militants are attacking those who share their environment but not their resolve to go without pay for four months. Empty stomachs. Children who’ve been pulled out of school. No medication. As the strike rolls on, the situation is bound to get nastier. So as workers unite and their cause woos far-removed supporters, they also turn on those who suffer from their same conditions but don’t agree on what to do. Those blamed for one or another grievance, past or present, like rival unionists, aren’t welcome in this revolution. Be sure that it’s the language of revolution, like curses spat on stolen dirt, giving life to the core.

It is amidst these ramblings on the platinum belt that those other unionists, Cosatu (some of whom may actually be able to afford a belt made of platinum) resume their internal war after an election break that gave competing factions time to patch their wounded.

The federation of trade unions had a meeting from Monday to Wednesday. On the agenda were, among other things, unity, filling posts after some members moved to government, a report from Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo (SNG), task teams from the ANC and former Cosatu leaders, a high court application from eight of their unions on forcing a special national congress, and Numsa’s reasons for why it shouldn’t be booted out of the federation. Needless to say, a reasonable number of the issues related to divisions, quite serious ones.

Coinciding with the meeting, an article arrived in Independent Newspapers titles offering details of the SNG report. The audit firm was appointed to look into Cosatu’s move from its old to its new building and allegations against General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s of conflict of interest.

According to the reports, SNG found Cosatu’s old HQ was worth between R12.6 million and R19.5 million but was sold for R10 million. The building they bought, claims the article after looking at the leaked report, was valued at R43.7 million but purchased for R50 million. Worse, the same buyer sold Cosatu its new building and happened to also buy its old one, meaning at best the buyer would have made a nifty R16 million from the over- and under-pricing.

It doesn’t seem Vavi’s quite being fingered for the issue. Collin Matla, who was head of Cosatu’s investment body Kopano Ke Matla, was in charge and seems to be the one to blame. (Matla also the current acting CEO of Eskom.) But he answered to Vavi, who will by default be accused of failing to oversee Cosatu’s finances.

But to really stick it to Vavi (if the sex in the office revelations didn’t hurt him enough), there are also allegations of not revealing a conflict of interest. His stepdaughter briefly worked for a company which handled Cosatu’s communications and his wife just happened to have partnered with the head of the communications company in another venture. The communications contract actually helped Cosatu save money, but nevertheless Vavi didn’t declare the potential conflict of interest.

There are some people who are enraptured by such details, the brick-by-brick building or crumbling of a story using leaks as mortar, snippets telling us about characters we see often but know little about. Personally, I find it like being in court. There are too many mundane details hung up on semantics and you have to stick around too long to get both sides of the story, then wait even longer for any ability to make an objective judgment on what the hell is going on.

The funny thing about the Cosatu story is the timing. The meeting’s agenda and the fact that the SNG report was leaked shows a federation divided right when it would want to be united. The ANC’s decreased majority in the elections and the Economic Freedom Fighters’ success, which was small in comparison but large given their resources and time on the scene, could suggest a growing demand for more legitimately left-leaning policies in the country. That’s certainly the gap Numsa hopes to fill.

While Cosatu squabbles and dithers on what are essentially issues related to the politics of the country and the power of those who run it, starting with Rustenburg and spreading across the country, we’re seeing workers’ issues being put on the front page of newspapers. There’s growing support for the mineworkers and in turn many on the wrong side of the inequality divide, just as there’s critical debate about the harm they might be causing themselves, the industry and their families.

Through the mining strike, the working class and the left have a rallying point, as complex, ugly and contradictory as it can be. What’s interesting is that it has nothing to do with Cosatu, nor its squabbles over power, building purchases or reports from SNG.  DM

Photo: Cosatu new headquarters on Braamfontein, Johannesburg. (Greg Nicolson)

  • Greg Nicolson
  • South Africa


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