South Africa

Cosatu Congress: The pointless ban on the ANC leadership question

By Sipho Hlongwane 20 September 2012

Cosatu has been adamant about not picking a side or even making a pronouncement about the upcoming ANC congress at Mangaung. At least the leadership has been. Not the delegates, though. Some NUM people made it very clear that they were for President Jacob Zuma and didn’t have time for anyone who was not. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

Cosatu has steadfastly refused to take sides in the upcoming elective conference of the African National Congress (ANC) in which President Jacob Zuma will be seeking re-election. This is very different to the 2008 campaign, in which people like the union federation general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi were loud and vivid supporters of Zuma against the incumbent at the time, Thabo Mbeki.

The federation has repeatedly said that it would only make such pronouncements after 1 October, when nominations for leadership positions in the ANC open. With just a week left, it still insists on not saying anything – which is even weirder if you consider that the congress is the federation’s supreme decision-making body and isn’t bound by ANC rules at all. If there were ever an appropriate forum for deciding what Cosatu’s stance at Mangaung should be, it is the congress.

The congress rules go so far as to ban any songs or signs that are deemed to be against an alliance partner. Leaders can be sung ‘for’, but not against.

Still, that didn’t prevent some lobbying via songs and ‘showing of signs’. A little background: the different affiliate unions broadly fall in two categories: those who support Zuma for a second term and those who believe that leadership change is necessary in Mangaung. No opposing leader has come out, but deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe is largely understood to be the name showing up prominently on anti-Zuma slates.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is Cosatu’s largest affiliate, with just over 310,000 paying members. It has been a supporter for a second term for Zuma. The second-largest affiliate is the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) with 291,000 members, and wants a more radical ANC and therefore opposes Zuma for a second term. Even the Cosatu top brass was thought to be split on the question: Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini is a strong Zuma ally, while general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has been having second thoughts.

In the run-up to the congress, the unions were supporting various leaders for re-election based largely on where they stood on the ANC leadership spectrum.

The issue was thought to be so divisive that a special meeting was held just before the congress started on Monday, and a deal was struck to allow all incumbents to run unopposed and therefore prevent an ugly showdown that would have bogged the conference down unendingly.

That has not stopped unions from showing displeasure towards each other or even openly showing support for their preferred candidates. On Thursday, the delegates broke out in song, either supporting Zuma or opposing him. The incident caused congress to stop momentarily and it required the joint efforts of Dlamini and Vavi to get delegates to sit down.

Watch: NUM delegates start a fire

The incident seems to have been sparked rather innocuously by three people who were handing out pamphlets outside Gallagher Estate. While most of it was the sort of socialist propaganda material that is always found at these congresses, there were two or three signs that called for ‘justice for the Marikana miners’ and declared that the police who killed 34 and injured 78 at the strike were the tools of a bourgeoisie government and needed to be opposed. It was a bad message to bring. A few delegates, wearing a t-shirt bearing the name of Cosatu and NUM, objected so strongly to the message that they burned the posters and pamphlets.

“This is dividing the alliance,” they said.

In the weird mathematics of the tripartite alliance, siding with the miners or calling for the police to be punished for killing the Marikana miners is seen as being anti-Zuma. That point was made clear by South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande in his speech on Monday, where he said that the police had just been doing their job. He and Dlamini railed against expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, who has called for Zuma and police minister Nathi Mthethwa to resign. To alliance leaders like Nzimande, Marikana is the work of anti-ANC and anti-Zuma agitators.

When the delegates saw the material being handed out, they must have read it as an anti-Zuma onslaught.

They then marched into the hall where congress was already underway, and sang pro-Zuma songs. The disruption prompted other union members to jump up and start marching about, each one voicing their Mangaung preference in song. Some held up two fingers, which is understood to signify ‘second term’. Others held their arms above their heads in a horizontal position and rolled them around to signify ‘change’.

Vavi’s reminder that such things were banned in congress rules only prompted the delegates to make the signs even more openly. Eventually calm was returned to the hall.

Another visual sign of the disagreements within Cosatu was the failure by the Numsa delegation to wear shirts in solidarity with NUM. All the delegates were given t-shirts with the message: “Hands off Cosatu, hands off NUM” which was in response to the avalanche of criticism that the mineworkers union has fallen under since Marikana. From a high vantage point, one could see that most of the delegates wore the black t-shirt, except for Numsa. They wore red. It was a block of red right in front of the main stage area surrounded by a sea of black.

The only time that the hall really came alive during the four-day conference was when the delegates forgot themselves and openly declared their ANC allegiances in song. It made a complete mockery of the leadership’s refusal to make a pronouncement on Mangaung – the delegates have already made up their minds, clearly. The problem is that it isn’t one mind. It might suit Cosatu’s bosses right now to pretend they haven’t decided yet, but they’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone that the unions they lead haven’t as well. DM

Photo by Sipho Hlongwane


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