South Africa

Cosatu Congress: Battling the rupture of Mangaung, and the curse of Marikana

By Ranjeni Munusamy 20 September 2012

Cosatu’s 11th National Congress will not go down in history as the federation’s finest moment. Divided by factions and under the whip of its allies, the trade union federation has been unable to take major decisions this week, particularly on contentious, and yet urgent, political issues. The extraordinary wage settlement at the Lonmin mine at Marikana has further disorientated it. What, then, does Cosatu take to Mangaung? Probably as much as it will get out of it. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

On Wednesday morning, it was announced at the Cosatu Congress that all political resolutions had been deferred to the trade union federation’s Central Executive Committee (CEC). This means that instead of the close to 3,000 delegates gathered in Midrand this week deciding on political hot potatoes such as Cosatu’s role in the alliance, the state of the ANC, the relationship with the SACP, political transformation and the fight against corruption, these matters will now be up to the CEC to debate and decide on – behind closed doors.

With an acrimonious debate on Tuesday over Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s political report, particularly over his assessment of the crisis of leadership in the ANC and government, it was probably decided not to open the political resolutions for discussion, as it would undoubtedly have bogged down the congress further. 

The congress has also yet to decide whether it will formally pronounce on the ANC leadership issue and its preferences for senior positions in the ruling party. Despite there being just over a week to go before the nomination process opens in the ANC, Cosatu is hesitant to commit to a list of names for the ANC’s top six posts and is hiding behind an earlier decision to pronounce on the matter “at the appropriate time”. Considering that the congress is meeting just a few days before ANC structures begin nominations, what Cosatu considers to be the “appropriate time” remains to be seen. 

But while there is obvious support for President Jacob Zuma’s term as ANC leader among the delegates, and the informal position of Cosatu appears to be that the status quo should also remain for the other top ANC positions, the congress has not declared it position formally. 

In the three years since its last congress, the character of Cosatu has changed significantly. While it was previously proud to mould itself as the independent, critical voice of the workers, it has now fallen under the shadow of the ANC. Clearly the ANC and the SACP have had enough of Vavi’s candour and tendency to jab at their weaknesses, and decided that the best way to mute him is through his own members. 

From the discussions at the congress, it became evident that there has been fierce behind-the-scenes lobbying, particularly among the big affiliates such as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and teachers’ union Sadtu, to rein Vavi in and get Cosatu to be a more compatible alliance partner. The reason the ANC, SACP and its friendly forces within Cosatu want to limit the criticism coming from Cosatu is so that it can pave the way for preserving the status quo at Manguang. They know that if Cosatu continues to proclaim that the country is in crisis, this obviously makes the case for leadership change.   

This has set them on a collision course with the more militant affiliates such as the metalworkers’ union, Numsa, which resents the campaign by the SACP to silence Cosatu, and is determined to push the ANC towards radical policy changes. 

As a result of the clash of wills between the titans in Cosatu, the federation is now stuck. It is unable to thrash out its position on contentious issues, as it is difficult to bridge agreement. It cannot decide whether it now wants to play nicely with its alliance partners or remain as a strong voice in civil society, constantly challenging government on corruption, delivery failures and policy disagreements. 

All this now hangs on the programme of action Cosatu adopts on Thursday, and whether it is able to flesh out how to put into effect the much-vaunted “Lula moment”. The Lula moment, proposed by Vavi in the political report, is based on Brazil’s dramatic turnaround and improvement of living standards of the working class during its former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s second term of office. Cosatu is now considering radical changes in terms of its internal functioning, as well as to ANC policy, in order to bring about such changes in South Africa. 

But Cosatu remains hamstrung in its ability to make decisions. On Wednesday it also put on hold a decision on a proposed national minimum wage. Delegates debated whether there should be a national minimum wage or a sectoral minimum wage, and then deferred the matter to a collective bargaining conference it wants to hold next year.  

National Education and Health Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) general secretary Fikile Majola said during the debate that a national minimum wage would help to reduce inequalities. “This will move lower paid workers up… Without that, there is no Lula moment,” he said. 

But the biggest crisis facing Cosatu now – even though some delegates don’t like using the word and prefer the more subtle term “challenge” – is the impact of the wage deal at the Lonmin mine at Marikana. Besides the fact that its biggest affiliate, NUM, was embarrassed by the whole saga and had no role in settling the protracted and violent strike, the agreement could upset the labour relations doctrine in the country. 

Addressing the congress on Wednesday night, Vavi said the Marikana wage deal set a dangerous precedent. Other workers would think that they, too, could get substantial increases by going on illegal strikes, he said.

“We are not saying that workers do not deserve their money, but if we are not careful, this may mean an end [to] the central bargaining system in the country. Workers will just embark on wildcat strikes and steam ahead and force us to follow them,” Vavi said. 

He was speaking after returning from the Gold Fields Driefontein mine in Carletonville, where 15,000 workers have been on an illegal strike for the past 10 days. He and NUM president Senzeni Zokwana made an emergency visit to the mine, where workers are now also demanding a R12,500 wage hike, as was the case at the Lonmin platinum mine. 

Vavi told reporters before leaving the congress earlier that they were going to the mine to prevent “another Marikana”. He reported back to the congress that he and Zokwana managed to convince the workers at the Gold Fields mine not to leave the NUM.

The NUM held a special national executive committee meeting on the sidelines of the Cosatu congress on Wednesday night to discuss the outcome of the Marikana strike and the implications for the union. They will report on the outcome of their meeting to the media and to the congress on Thursday. 

But there is not much the NUM or Cosatu can do about the Lonmin agreement now that the die is cast. However, the only way to prevent other members from casting aside their union representation is to convince workers that only the NUM and Cosatu can represent their best interests. The best place to decide how to win back confidence was at this week’s congress, but after three days of discussions, there are as yet no special interventions agreed to which could communicate such a message.

The Cosatu congress ends on Thursday, after adopting resolutions on socio-economic issues. It remains to be seen what stance the federation will take on nationalisation with NUM and Numsa on opposite sides of the debate. The congress will have to adopt a declaration of all its decisions this week, which will also inform the positions it takes to the ANC’s national conference in December. 

Based on the decisions three days in, Cosatu does not look particularly empowered to make a strong impact at Mangaung – a distinctly different position to where it was five years ago, when it forced major policy changes at Polokwane.

Whether it is in Marikana or Mangaung, Cosatu is looking rather impotent. It now has only one day to turn that impression around. DM

Photo by Jordi Matas.


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