South Africa

Cosatu Congress: Hard-fought unity, unpleasant stalemate

By Sipho Hlongwane 21 September 2012

In the final telling, disaster was avoided at Cosatu. The federation stopped short of devolving into complete chaos, but what was lost to make that gain was a significant thrust in any direction, politically. We still don’t know what the federation will do at the ANC’s Mangaung conference. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

Here’s what could have happened at the Cosatu elective congress: the different affiliate unions could have decided to play hardball with each other by nominating different people for leadership positions. They could have made their differences more pronounced by choosing candidates based on their perceived leanings in the ANC’s own leadership cold war, thus making the chances of a compromise very unlikely. Then they could have had a good old-fashioned scrap on the political report and forced Cosatu to make a pronouncement right there and then on whom it favours for ANC leadership at the Mangaung elective congress in December. That would have left the losing unions feeling very aggrieved, and would probably have destroyed any sense of unity and solidarity for ever. 

A united Cosatu is a powerful tripartite alliance pillar, very often standing in opposition to the largesse of the ruling party and some of its more unsavoury elements, like the so-called tenderpreneur class. A Cosatu at war with itself is only good for those who want to use the ANC for personal enrichment.

Unity above all else – that was the leadership strategy at the conference. Things started off somewhat badly, however. A late meeting of minds just before the congress started resulted unions to either dropping the candidates they had if they weren’t the incumbents, or supporting the rest of the unions in preserving the leadership that was there already. That was very important. It took the sting out of the rivalries and ensured that particular debate was put to bed early. The focus could now rest solely on policies. 

If the unions could be made to stand in a single-file on the leadership question, they weren’t so willing to do so for policy debates. They were getting bogged down on the simplest of issues. Case in point: the Central Executive Committee (CEC) decided to invite leading political analyst Somadoda Fikeni to address the delegates. This caused a mini uproar, as some unions said the move was unprecedented and unacceptable. It took many hours of convincing before Fikeni was allowed to speak. 

There were some pretty controversial points that the unions needed to debate. The future of ANC leadership, or how to even approach that issue, was one. The other was the state of the South African economy. Are we in a crisis or not? Is the South African government competent or not? How should Cosatu proceed politically in the next three years? If the debate was allowed to run unabated, the conference could have lasted 15 days. 

In the end, it was decided that many of the contentious reports would be deferred to the CEC meeting. Speaking after the congress, Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said this move wasn’t inherently undemocratic. When the different unions hold their own congresses, they are given a mandate by their delegates which they then agitate for at the federation’s congress. The CEC is made up of the leaders of all the different affiliate unions, who are given the same task at those meetings. So to defer a matter to a CEC is not to silence the dissenters, he said. 

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) did not seem to see things that way. It has been pushing for Cosatu to lobby for leadership change at Mangaung, and thus wanted an open debate and a pronouncement from the congress. Its delegates were very unhappy about the deferral and tried to convince the session chairman, First Deputy President Tyotyo James, to open the debate. He declined, saying the decision to defer the political debate to the CEC was already taken unanimously. 

Numsa then pointed out that what this was in effect doing was preventing those who wanted a different leadership at Mangaung from speaking, since the congress rules forbade delegates from speaking against any alliance leader, but did not prevent anyone from speaking for anyone. But it was to no avail. 

The next CEC meeting is in November. By then, nominations for leadership positions in the ANC will have been open for a number of weeks. Numsa wanted a pronouncement so that they could begin lobbying by the first day of October, when they will be allowed to do so. Cosatu has promised to convene a special CEC in the first week of October – the metalworkers hope that even if the federation continues to be coy about its preferred choice at Mangaung, they will at least be allowed to go out and lobby for their positions. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they won’t be singing from the same hymn sheet as their union brethren.

The special Marikana resolution was watered down drastically to shield the Zuma government from any sharp criticism. So was a report by Vavi, who has been a sturdy critic of the government. 

In a way, nobody really got what they wanted.

What was especially strange was the decision by Numsa to back the watered-down Marikana report. How did that help their cause for change? A very damning report would not only make Zuma look bad, it would ask serious question of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which has turned into a political and organising rival. If a deal was struck, it isn’t clear what Numsa got for its complicity. It wasn’t granted so much as a debate on the ANC leadership question. It was very puzzling.

The ones who got what they wanted were those who didn’t want the 2,500-plus delegates to handle the responsibility of debating important issues. The application of some Daily Maverick political logic suggests that this is probably NUM. It stood to lose the most by allowing the Numsa firebrands from having a go at them. If this debate now happens at the CEC, it will be behind closed doors and Vavi will come out and read out the final statement. That’s damage control right there, whatever the outcome. And if NUM is behind the CEC deferral, then Zuma will go to sleep with a smile on his face tonight. Frans Baleni, Senzeni Zokwana and the other NUM leaders are backing him heavily for Mangaung. 

There was one glaring omission from all the pronouncements and declarations made. This mistake was made because Cosatu and NUM have been asking the wrong questions all along. It’s on the question of the widening gap between union leaders and the workers they are supposed to represent. The congress declaration does say that the “social gap” between union bosses and workers must be narrowed, but things are far beyond that now, especially in the mining sector, NUM’s stomping ground. 

In the platinum sector, the non-affiliated Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has expanded very rapidly due NUM’s poor penetration of late. Workers just don’t feel NUM represents them adequately anymore. After the Marikana workers extracted a 22% pay hike from Lonmin by going outside the collective bargaining process, Cosatu warned that this practice was unsustainable in the long term. Workers must return to worker-led unions, the federation’s president said. As true as that may be, the simple lesson learned at Impala Platinum and at Lonmin is that if you want to get things done as a worker, you ignore NUM and Cosatu and you talk directly to the employer. That is disastrous for Cosatu. 

So where is the grand plan to reverse the dropping membership numbers? How is the federation going to convince angry workers that it is still their only true home? There was nothing of that at the conference. It is a glaring omission and one that will come back to bite the federation and its member organisations repeatedly in the future. It is true that fragmentation is not a good strategy for collective bargaining, but how sure is Cosatu that it will be around long enough to see if workers learn that for themselves?

For now, all roads lead to Mangaung. The banner Cosatu will fly is not yet known; it’s all very tiptoey and strained. Vavi and Dlamini of all people must know that this weak political position in exchange for a façade of unity will please their enemies in the ANC no end. Still, outright disunity was not the better option either. DM 

Photo: COSATU supporters during the first day of COSATU’s 11th National Congress, celebrated at the Gallagher Estate in Midrand. (Jordi Matas)


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