South Africa, Politics

Mayday! Mayday! Let’s pretend we’re united

By Greg Nicolson 2 May 2012

Ahead of the ruling party’s elective conference in December, Cosatu's open unhappiness with its ruling partners has increasingly being interpreted as a split in the alliance. Not so surprising, then, that ANC leaders used Workers’ Day celebrations to call for unity. Cosatu leaders returned the favour by saving their attacks for the DA. By GREG NICOLSON.

Speaking at a rally in Botshabelo outside Bloemfontein, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini denied the labour federation is trying to destabilise the ANC ahead of its elective conference. He said the ANC is the leader of the tripartite alliance and Cosatu will support its elected leaders.

Cosatu’s leaders have denied they’re trying to influence the ANC elections, but their actions suggest a rift. Dlamini has been cautious of criticising the ruling party, which his general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has undermined by expressing stinging disapproval.

Vavi alarmed the ANC in March at a rally against e-tolls and labour brokers when he told thousands of protestors the government is instituting a system of “economic apartheid”.

In a fiery speech, seen by some as electioneering ahead of Mangaung, he warned the ruling party of forgetting the poor. “Today we are here to remind some fellows where they are coming from. They don’t know anymore the power of the working class.”

Vavi withheld from criticising the government on Tuesday, instead responding to an attack from DA leader Helen Zille. He disputed claims that the labour market is too rigid and South Africa’s labour regulations are blocking jobs.

“The labour market in South Africa is sufficiently flexible, if not too flexible. If you judge that by the fact that in one year… we lost over one million jobs between 2008 and 2009. And employers did that without any sweat,” said Vavi.

Another strong critic of the current administration, Irvin Jim from the National Union of Metalworkers, also held back on Tuesday. Speaking in the Northern Cape, Jim directed his criticism towards the DA, calling it a “Mickey Mouse” organisation that’s trying to undermine the ANC.

President Jacob Zuma’s calls for unity set the tone for the day. He spoke alongside Dlamini in Botshabelo, reminding all that political rights have always partnered workers’ rights and May Day celebrations must be considered alongside celebrations of the ANC.

Zuma said the ANC, SACP and Cosatu must achieve internal unity, which will lead to unity within the alliance. “We have a huge task of the alliance. There are those against us working hard so that we do not achieve success,” he told a gathering in the Free State. He called on alliance leaders to clarify the issues on which they don’t agree.

Earlier this year, Zuma called on workers to “influence the ANC from within”, suggesting union members join the party and help shape its policy while solidifying its long history with the working class. But the e-tolls fiasco and issue of labour brokers has put Cosatu at loggerheads with its alliance partner, adding fuel to the idea that the ANC has forgotten the poor.

Speaking at the Alexandra Stadium in Gauteng, ANC deputy general secretary Thandi Modise said dissent within the alliance shouldn’t be seen as division. Referring to Cosatu’s outspoken criticism of e-tolls, she said, “This disagreement in a way also emphasises the fact that Cosatu is not the ANC. It has its own identity.”

With many of the Workers’ Day events running into the afternoon, it was Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven who grabbed headlines throughout the day. In a statement he said the trade union federation would continue to fight e-tolls until they have “finally been scrapped”.

He compared labour brokers to human traffickers because they are “hiring out workers to their client companies as if we are no more than commodities, like office furniture or stationery.” Craven also called for the Protection of State Information Bill to include protection of whistle-blowers.

Speaking on SAfm ahead of Workers’ Day, Craven defended Cosatu’s attempts to influence policy outside workplace conditions, saying it had a responsibility to protect their interests against policies that harm their livelihoods.

The ANC was keen to show that it, too, cared about the interests of workers and deployed a raft of national executive committee members to address rallies throughout SA.

In a statement, it acknowledged workers’ role in the “struggle for liberation and development”, describing them as “key in defining the parameters and content of our struggle”.

The ANC and Cosatu remain in dispute over issues of labour law amendments and labour brokers, but the progress on e-tolls, put on hold last week after discussions between the two groups, might have helped slap a veneer of unity over the conflicted alliance. For now. DM

Read more:

  • Top 10 battles raging within the tripartite alliance in Daily Maverick.
  • Unionists to choose sides in Mail & Guardian Online.
  • Johannesburg: day of the red tide in Daily Maverick.

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