South Africa, Politics

Mangaung’s X-factor: Cosatu

By Ranjeni Munusamy 2 May 2012

In this week’s May Day celebrations as well as in the face-off with government over labour brokers and e-tolling, Cosatu is flexing its muscles. The labour federation seems to have a serious case of buyer’s remorse over the Zuma presidency and has decided not to back him – or anyone else – for the ANC presidency. This has serious implications for the Mangaung conference, writes RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

In August 2005, two months after Jacob Zuma was fired as deputy president of the country, Cosatu’s central committee was the first structure of the alliance to openly come out in support of him. The declaration of that meeting of all Cosatu affiliates – the highest decision-making body between the labour federation’s congresses – stated: “We are convinced that we are dealing with a concerted, politically inspired campaign aimed at destroying the political career of the deputy president.”

At the time, Zuma was a political pariah and a culture of fear was palpable in the alliance. Tensions in the security and intelligence agencies of the Thabo Mbeki presidency had reached a climax – everyone was investigating, bugging and raiding everyone else – and people were generally afraid to speak out on the Zuma issue. 

Luthuli House had become a rubber-stamping mechanism for the Mbeki presidency, merely endorsing and praise-singing everything he did, and Zuma was out on his ear – cast out into the political wilderness to wade through his legal problems.

But Cosatu went boldly where others feared to tread. The central committee statement demanded “the withdrawal of all the charges against comrade Zuma”, reasoning it was not possible for him get a fair trial. “If the case goes ahead despite our calls, Cosatu demands a fair hearing and a full bench to hear the case. We will ensure that whenever comrade Zuma appears in court, our people will demonstrate en masse.”

It was no idle threat. This statement set in motion the rolling, nationwide campaign in support of Zuma, which brought thousands of people to the various courts in which he appeared during his corruption and rape trials. It also provided Zuma with various platforms to speak when he was iced out by the ANC, and launched the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust aimed at providing support with his legal costs and well-being. [Disclosure: Ranjeni Munusamy previously ran the Friends of Jacob Zuma website – Ed]

By the end of 2005, the ANC Youth League, led at the time by Fikile Mbalula, the South African Communist Party and the Young communist League joined Cosatu to rescue Zuma from being prosecuted. The campaign built such momentum that, midway, it metamorphosed into the “Zuma for president” campaign. Because the ANC prohibits campaigning ahead of its elective conferences, the rallies, T-shirts and songs supporting Zuma in his criminal trials easily doubled up to build political support for him in ANC structures ahead of the Polokwane conference.

No one described it better than Cosatu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, when he said the Zuma campaign was an “unstoppable tsunami”. The campaign demanded true grit from those who led it because it required going head to head with powerful state agencies, had little resources and took a heavy toll on all the organisations, each convulsing from internal divisions over the Zuma issue. It cost the labour federation its previous president, Willie Madisha, who backed Mbeki instead of Zuma.

So when Cosatu announced last week that it would not be pronouncing on the ANC leadership issue, it was a major declaration that it would not waste its political capital again. It was also an implicit concession by Cosatu that it had blundered badly by providing unconditional support to Zuma, a gamble which had not yielded any dividends for its constituency, the working class.

It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly the romance ended and the disenchantment with Zuma began. Zuma never really acknowledged or thanked the workers for carrying him to the gates of Mahlamba Ndlopfu, and clearly didn’t feel much sense of indebtedness to Cosatu. While his family and funders quickly started reaping rewards from his ascension to power, the workers did not.

Six months after his inauguration, it became clear that Cosatu was unhappy and that Zuma was not providing the decisive and pro-worker leadership they had anticipated during the support campaign. Though the Zuma government has not tampered with South Africa’s labour laws, despite criticism that it is too rigid, the special attention Cosatu envisaged it would have was not forthcoming.

On 30 November 2009, just six months after Zuma’s inauguration, Cosatu released an overview of the political situation in which it stated: “It is now clear that there is a realignment of forces in the national executive committee of the ANC with a new tendency emerging. There is a growing tendency to use the rooi gevaar (red danger) and the usual anti-Cosatu anti-union rhetoric.”

The statement went on to say: “Suddenly we have been reminded of what we thought we buried in Polokwane rearing its ugly head – ‘the ANC is not a socialist organisation’. We have been accused of wanting to impose socialism on the ANC. The voices of this small minority accusing us of hijacking the ANC for narrow reasons have been growing louder and louder.”

This was, of course, the rise of Julius Malema, whose initial target was Cosatu. Vavi and others watched in frustration as Zuma allowed Malema to mutate into a dominant force in the ANC, hijacking the national agenda and randomly attacking its leaders without sanction. 

Cosatu was also frustrated that the Zuma presidency merely replaced one set of privileged cohorts with another: “Society is confronted with a major challenge of crass materialism and corruption. No organisation or institution is not challenged by this new phenomenon. We shall be stepping up a campaign against the scourge of corruption, use of patronage, use of state institutions for the agenda of personal accumulation and all these other practises that destroy the moral fibre of our society,” the labour federation said.

Fast-forward to 2012: As Zuma fights against a still-invisible challenger to retain the ANC presidency, Cosatu has decided to withhold it support for anyone contending for positions at the ANC conference. When Vavi says “Cosatu will not be won over into any faction this time around”, the implication is that Cosatu, for now, will not back Zuma for a second term. And until someone else raises his or her hand (one finger doesn’t count, Kgalema Motlanthe), its two million members do not have a candidate for the ANC presidency.

This situation appears to be the result of divisions among Cosatu’s affiliates over the ANC leadership. The National Union of Mineworkers, the home of Motlanthe and Gwede Mantashe (the previous general secretaries of the union), apparently want to retain the status quo. So does the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, whose general secretary, Fikile Majola, was Cosatu’s appointee on the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust. Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini also supports this position, whereas Vavi does not.

The militant National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa is at the forefront of the campaign for a leadership change, supported by a significant part of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union.

Had Vavi not decided to stay on as general secretary of Cosatu, these divisions would have ripped apart the labour federation with its own leadership battle at its September congress. For now, then, the turbulence has been contained.

An outlet for the frustrations with the Zuma government has been the campaign against labour brokers and e-tolling. On 7 March this year, Cosatu halted the economy and brought out its members in nationwide marches on the two issues. It has joined the civil society movement opposing the e-tolling system in the courts and is threatening further strike action.

As its membership becomes progressively militant, it is possible that Cosatu could return to its default position as a radical political force in the alliance, similar to its status during the early years of the Mbeki presidency. Being a subservient partner to the ANC has not served its interests, so the labour federation is looking to manoeuvre itself into a position where it has more bargaining power.

This means that, as things stand, Cosatu members will not vote in any predictable pattern at the ANC’s Manguang conference.

A figure which has always been difficult to compute is what percentage of the delegates to the ANC national conferences are Cosatu members. At Polokwane in 2007, it appeared that a significant number of delegates were either Cosatu members or had been influenced by the formidable propaganda campaign led by Cosatu, the ANC Youth League and the South African Community Party to support Zuma.

But with the ANC’s major recruitment drive to swell its membership, it is difficult to anticipate the balance of forces among delegates, and how much influence the labour federation will have on the outcome. Though it’s early days, Cosatu’s members will now be an X-factor at Mangaung. DM

Photo: State workers seeking higher wages take part in a strike in Johannesburg on 2 September 2010. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.



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