South Africa

The dissolution of Cosatu’s ANC consensus: sides, numbers, personalities

By Sipho Hlongwane 5 July 2012

Just five years after helping propel Jacob Zuma to the top ANC seat, the Cosatu leadership wants to hedge its bets, but the strongest affiliate unions have picked sides and are openly squabbling. The result is a dissolution of the traditionally unified voice within the African National Congress. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The Cosatu in the race to Mangaung is radically different to the one of Polokwane. The power it once exercised over the ANC has dissipated. The signs were beginning to emerge  prior to the ANC’s national policy conference last week – and after the week in Midrand it is clear  Cosatu will struggle to repeat what it achieved in Polokwane. 

As a member of the tripartite alliance, Cosatu is encouraged to make inputs into ANC policy discussions. Many – if not all – of the top Cosatu and affiliate union bosses are also important ANC members, and thus led delegations to the policy conference. Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi attended the conference as a delegate, as did the union federation’s  president, S’dumo Dlamini. National Union of Metalworkers of SA general secretary Irvin Jim was there, as was National Union of Mineworkers general secretary Frans Baleni. 

Unlike 2008, the union seems at odds with itself and what it wants exactly in terms of policy from the leadership of the ANC. The federation has not endorsed any particular candidate for the leadership of the party. This stands in stark contrast to five years ago, when Vavi said at a funeral, “So yes, because Jacob Zuma is one of us, and he is one of our leaders, for him we are prepared to lay (down) our lives and to shoot and kill.” He later said he regretted saying it. 

What changed? Why is Cosatu not as united as it once was?

In March, the central executive committee of the federation met and, after that meeting, Vavi said a decision had been taken not to “enter into the leadership debate”, another way of saying don’t support anyone just yet.

“We discourage any premature discussion on the succession debate, because it distracts us from the primary political tasks of taking forward our transformation mandate,” Vavi said. “We agreed that Cosatu’s actions, politically and organisationally, must at all times be informed by the material conditions of workers and rejected unacceptable emerging signs of divisions inside the federation.”

Vavi described the constant obsession with the leadership question in the ANC as dangerous and virus-like.

City Press obtained a document in which the committee undertook to “not debate who our preferred candidates are going to be in the Mangaung conference unless, in our assessment, things have fallen back to the pre-Polokwane conference situation”.

Vavi said: “Our overriding policy must be to re-establish within the ANC and its allies the traditional values of the revolutionary movement – service to the people with no expectation of material reward – and strive to instil those same values in government and broader society.”

His words have gone unheeded. 

Numsa, numerically the second-biggest member of Cosatu, was first out of the blocks. It rejected a paper published by an ANC-appointed task team to investigate the nationalisation of mines. The team spurned the wholesale nationalisation without compensation as lobbied for by the union. Numsa also called for Cosatu to reject Zuma’s bid for a second term as ANC president.

“We are calling for the nationalisation of all strategic economic assets and sectors such as mines, banks, telecommunications, petrochemicals, national food chains, steel plants, energy, water and so on – without compensation… There are no holy cows in our demand for nationalisation,” Numsa’s Jim said prior to the conference in early June. 

Jim’s deputy, Karl Cloete, said the ANC’s entire national executive committee must be removed for failing to implement the party’s resolutions taken at Polokwane. He said: “We are very clear that the ANC NEC must change because the ANC NEC is the collective body that is entrusted with the policies of the African National Congress.” 

NUM, the largest Cosatu affiliate, has also come out swinging – but in favour of Zuma. At its congress in March, it formally adopted a resolution to support Zuma in Mangaung. 

“(The resolution) calls on delegates to mandate the NUM’s top brass to ‘engage other affiliates’ ahead of Cosatu’s national congress in September and to pronounce in support of the incumbent leadership of the ANC,” BusinessDay reported from the congress. 

“In the resolution, the NUM laments ‘personal attacks’ on Mr Zuma and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. It also calls on the ANC and its alliance structures to ‘deal with the ANC leadership question on factional, tribal and character assassination grounds’.”

NUM president Senzeni Zokwana called Numsa’s stance on mining “‘dangerous populism” and said the union should rather be supporting state intervention in all the key industries by encouraging the government to take stakes in large companies and through beneficiation (basically calling for more companies, preferably owned by black miners, to join the industry).

“We don’t believe nationalisation is the panacea to all our problems. We tell those who call for it that they’re only playing with the aspirations of people and their frustrations, using a populist agenda rather than being real,” Zokwana said.

NUM accepted the ANC’s research and stance on mine nationalisation. 

The policy recommendations to come out of the ANC policy conference indicate that NUM won in the end. 

Mantashe did introduce a form of state intervention in mining into the commission. The scheme seeks to get all new mines to give 30% to the state – the idea was partially adopted, and instead the conference said the amount should not be capped. 

The wholesale nationalisation of mines and other key industries was not adopted at all.

The third-largest union, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, has sided with the miners in the great union fight. Nehawu is leaning towards a second Zuma presidency. 

The smaller unions – which tend to service the public sector – either have quibbles with the government (and by extension, the party that sits in government) or have not said anything about a second Zuma term.

In other words, the union battle lines have been drawn along private sector vs the public sector unions. Zuma’s government has not been on good terms with public sector unions. When Lindiwe Sisulu was a defence minister, most of the press she got was for the big fights she had with military service unions – from which she rarely backed down. 

Zuma has now appointed her as the public service and administration minister – meaning  she’ll face up to the rest of the public sector unions. Sisulu’s move to her new ministry was largely interpreted to be that Zuma has set his vicious bulldog (so to speak) on the quarrelsome public sector unions. The incentive for these unions not to see a second Zuma term, then, is enormous.

The metalworkers are on the public workers’ side on that issue. The mineworkers are not. Perhaps they still think Zuma is the anti-monopolist he once claimed to be. Numsa is certainly convinced that he is not.

This in-fighting leaves Cosatu in a spot of bother. It can’t present a united front to the ANC when its three biggest unions are fighting. Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven told Daily Maverick the positions Cosatu took to the policy conference represented the views of all the affiliate unions. But in the background Jim and Kloete, quoting from Numsa’s congress documents, contradict that statement.

It’s going to be a job and a half for Cosatu to settle the war between NUM and Numsa – particularly because it actually goes beyond the ANC. The two unions, thanks to the sectors they represent, often overlap and end up fighting over members. The mineworkers’ union is numerically superior to Numsa by 30,000 members but is threatened by an aggressive new union. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union has started to recruit members in territory usually known to belong to NUM. So it is very likely that, though the latter may have won the battle, Numsa may eventually succeed in radicalising Cosatu in its stance to the ANC leadership. That should give the ANC’s Zuma a few more sleepless nights. DM

Read more:

  • Cosatu refrains from the succession question – for now in the Mail & Guardian 

Photo: Zwelinzima Vavi at the ANC policy conference (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)