South Africa

Cosatu: Bigger, louder, but certainly not better

By Ranjeni Munusamy 5 September 2012

The combination of Mangaung convulsions and the Marikana crisis has left the 2.2-million strong Congress of South African Trade Unions somewhat battered. Cosatu heads to its 11th National Congress later this month on the back foot, with its biggest affiliate under siege and the majority of its members saying the federation is not carrying out its core purpose. It’s time for Cosatu to search its soul – or maybe to rediscover it. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY. 

Cosatu’s 10th National Congress in 2009 was something of a victory party for South Africa’s biggest trade union federation. Under the leadership of General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu had undertaken a major gamble by supporting Jacob Zuma during his criminal trials and in his campaign to be ANC president. The gamble paid off. 

When Thabo Mbeki was president, Cosatu had become almost a pariah in the tripartite alliance, shut out of decision-making processes as its leaders struggled to secure positions in the ANC. All that changed after the ANC’s Polokwane conference. Cosatu got its man into power and therefore had direct access to the presidency. When Zuma became state president, he consulted Cosatu on the restructuring of government. Senior Cosatu leaders made it to Parliament and Cabinet. 

So when Cosatu held its congress in September 2009, there was some major backslapping and high-fiving. In his political report to that congress, Vavi said: 

“If we cannot succeed with the agenda of decent work and poverty eradication with Jacob Zuma as the President, Kgalema Motlanthe as the deputy president responsible for poverty eradication, Gwede Mantashe as the ANC secretary general, Ebrahim Patel as the minster of Economic Development and Rob Davies as the minister of Trade and Industry, then there is little possibility that we can succeed to make any next period that of workers and the poor.  This is the moment that comes once in a long time. We, the leaders of the generation largely responsible for this political climate, so pregnant with real possibilities, cannot afford to squander this moment.” 

As it turned out, that once-in-a-lifetime moment fizzled out rather quickly. Cosatu found Zuma was not that great a president, Mantashe started telling off the unions and the federation’s deployees in Cabinet were not performing very well. The former president of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, became a member of the ANC National Executive Committee and later minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities. She was fired in a Cabinet reshuffle in October 2010, posted to a foreign mission and not heard of since. 

While Cosatu was also celebrating the deployment of SACP leaders Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin to Cabinet in 2009, it later decided this was a mistake and that the party needed its leaders to be running the organisation full time. This became a major source of contention between Cosatu and the SACP, putting a strain on the entire alliance. It is part of the reason some of the SACP’s leaders now want Vavi booted out of his post. 

The Zuma camp has disintegrated since Cosatu’s last congress, and as a result the federation’s internal cohesion has come undone. Like the ANC, Cosatu is now feeling the pressure of factional battles and it, too, has a serious case of Mangaung fever. Loyalties within the 20 affiliates and among Cosatu senior leaders are split between those supporting Zuma’s second term bid and those strongly against it. While the ANC’s power battles have affected Cosatu in the past, the effect of the federation’s cohesion now is unprecedented. 

But it’s the Marikana massacre which is really forcing Cosatu to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Cosatu’s response to the police killing of 34 mineworkers on 16 August was rather low-key as compared to its robust voice on major social and economic issues in the country. The reason was because its biggest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), was at the centre of the dispute at the Lonmin platinum mine that led to the wildcat strike and the confrontation with the police.

NUM’s role in the dispute will now be interrogated by the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the massacre and its leaders are now scampering to repair the union’s dented image. With strike action extending from the platinum sector to the gold mines, NUM, by far the most dominant union in the mining industry, is battling to contend with the unhappiness of its members. 

NUM’s leaders are being put under further pressure by expelled ANC Youth League President Julius Malema who is whipping up emotion among mineworkers to reject their union representatives and take matters into their own hands. All of this has exposed NUM’s internal weaknesses and its lack of activism in dealing with the wave of dissatisfaction among mineworkers.  

While NUM has traditionally been the “elder brother” at Cosatu congresses, setting the tone for discussions through its influence and sheer size, it is now fighting to regain credibility. The superiority complex NUM used to radiate, which grew from its line of high-pedigree leaders who went on to senior positions in the ANC, is now moderated as it prepares for intensive scrutiny at Cosatu’s 11th National Congress, being held in Midrand from 17 to 20 September. 

In the Organisational Report to be presented to the congress, Cosatu acknowledges it is under severe stress, and lists NUM’s troubles as part of the reason. “We need a critical assessment because we are meeting at a time when we are facing serious organisational challenges on many fronts,” the report states.

“Our biggest affiliate the NUM is under attack in the platinum belt from its former members and other forces,” it reads, referring to the challenge to NUM’s dominance in the mining sector from the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). 

Speaking to Gauteng shop stewards this week, Vavi said Cosatu was going to its congress “not in the best of space”. The organisational report details why this is so, among other reasons revealing the results of a survey Cosatu conducted to evaluate the level of worker satisfaction with their unions. The survey found that 60% of Cosatu members were not satisfied with how their unions dealt with securing better wages – the core function of a trade union. According to the survey, 37% are less than satisfied with their union’s handling of disciplinary cases. 

“Dissatisfaction with service is (a) recipe for breakaways and splits,” the report states. These findings, together with the rebellion in the mining sector, are bound to push the Cosatu congress into adopting a more militant approach to labour disputes in order regain the confidence of its members. 

The federation is also expected to confront its affiliates with a report of how many individual members come directly to Cosatu for intervention in disputes due to their frustration with how their unions handle matters. This has caused friction between union and Cosatu leaders, with affiliates accusing Vavi and others of usurping their role. 

NUM leaders were affronted by Vavi’s attempt to resolve a dispute at the Implats mine outside Rustenburg earlier this year, part of the reason he stayed out of the Lonmin dispute even when intervention was required.  

While Cosatu’s membership has grown by 230,000 (11.7%) to 2.2-million since its 2009 congress, the organisational report does raise concerns about the federation’s inability to recruit and organise vulnerable workers such as farm and domestic labourers. The workers survey also found that the average age of Cosatu’s members is around 40, meaning that younger people were not joining unions. 

Measuring the impact of Cosatu’s campaigns, the survey found its voice was resounding beyond its membership base. Cosatu’s campaigns against e-tolling, labour brokers and rising electricity prices, followed by its anti-corruption drive, attracted high levels of support outside union membership. This is reflective of Cosatu’s significant voice in civil society and its ability to mobilise major support on issues critical of government. It is a sore point in inter-alliance relations. 

The discussions at the upcoming Cosatu congress will define the posture of the largest formation of organised workers in the country. While its decisions on ANC leadership are bound to grab the most attention, it is Cosatu’s ability to read and respond to the mood of its members which will have the most impact on society. 

And with a worker rebellion close to brewing, Cosatu will need to decide now whether it will lead it or be destroyed by it. DM

Photo by Reuters.


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