South Africa

Cosatu and civil society: The right not to remain silent

By Ranjeni Munusamy 25 September 2012

Was last week’s move to smother Cosatu’s critical voice merely an attempt to shield government’s failings and deflect the African National Congress’ crisis of leadership? Or was it part of the ruling party’s drive to censure civil society and stave off challenges to its authority? In light of attempts by the ruling party to curtail judicial and media freedoms, the bid to tone down negative criticism from Cosatu is another worrying sign of disdain for the pillars of democracy. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

It would be easy to wave away the outcomes of last week’s Cosatu national congress as part of the normal course of political wrangling in the ruling alliance, and an unsurprising manifestation of the factional battles in the ANC. According to Cosatu’s figures, about half of the ANC’s membership of 1 million are also members of the trade union federation, so it is hardly surprising that Mangaung fever was causing convulsions in Midrand where 3,000 delegates from Cosatu’s 20 affiliates were gathered.

But when evaluating the role that Cosatu has assumed in post-apartheid South Africa, it cannot be dismissed as an irrelevant voice in society or an appendage in the alliance – as the South African Communist Party is increasingly becoming. Neither can the calculated move from inside the federation to mute Cosatu’s criticism of the ANC and government, which has been channelled mainly through General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

Cosatu has never viewed struggles in the workplace in isolation from the context in which these were happening in society. In post-apartheid South Africa, Cosatu translated its role in the Mass Democratic Movement into a vibrant voice within the tripartite alliance. During the Mbeki presidency, Cosatu honed its critical voice to speak out against South Africa’s approach to the crisis in Zimbabwe, AIDS denialism and the macroeconomic strategy, Gear.

However, its support for Jacob Zuma during his criminal trials set it up as a vocal opponent against government and created serious tensions with the ANC leadership at the time. The ANC’s Polokwane conference brought all these events to a climax and the newly elected ANC leadership embraced the role of Cosatu in the alliance, going as far as adopting many policy proposals proffered by the labour federation.

But the events of last week showed that the post-Polokwane romance will now have to continue on the ANC’s terms. The ANC, together with the SACP, is fed up with having to fend off criticism from Cosatu and wants to curtail its voice. Cosatu’s ringing of the alarm bells on high levels of corruption and incompetence in government is also seen by Zuma’s camp as an impediment to his campaign for a second term.

It also became clear that they identified Vavi as the main culprit who is determined to maintain Cosatu’s as an independent and critical voice in society. So instead of the allies launching the offensive against him themselves, they lobbied the leaders of some unions to call Vavi to order from within Cosatu. 

The move seemed to catch Vavi off guard. While he anticipated that there could possibly be a challenge to his re-election and that his political report would court controversy for its critical take on the failings of government, corruption and leadership ineptitude, he did not expect that he would be challenged on niggling issues such as the use of the word “crisis” to describe the situation in the country as a result of poverty, unemployment and inequality. But this was obviously used to teach him a lesson that he needs to be cautious in his choice of words, especially with regard to the ANC and government.

The real irritation with Vavi was aptly captured in SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande’s address to the Cosatu congress when he spoke of the need to defeat the anti-majoritarian liberal offensive.

“Whilst we accept that Cosatu may form tactical alliances with various formations at different points in time, caution must always be taken against who are our real friends,” Nzimande said. “We are also concerned about the tone of the political report on some of these matters. Strongly implied in the report is a more critical stance towards the alliance, and uncritical praise and elevation of tactical alliances with a whole variety of other forces. This is, we believe an incorrect posture by Cosatu.”

He is obviously referring to the alliances Cosatu forged with civil society organisations in opposition to e-tolling, the Protection of State Information Bill and the non-delivery of textbooks in Limpopo. On all these issues, civil society played a lead role in opposing government in court, in Parliament and in protest action, and Cosatu was up front and centre in voicing its disapproval.

Where the state’s own systems failed to detect that textbooks were not being delivered, Section27 stepped in, alerted the country to the crisis and propelled government to act to remedy the situation. The various commissions of inquiry to investigate the source of the problem and delayed deliveries of books would probably not have happened had this rights organisation not intervened.

But rather than welcome the intervention, the ANC has been embarrassed by the exposure of the crisis and would rather have Section27 butt out of its business. Cosatu’s alliance with Section27 therefore riles the ANC though it is difficult to articulate this publicly without being seen as defending incompetence in government.

Cosatu also came out against the proposed media tribunal and sided with the alliance of media and freedom of expression organisations, which raised an international stink over the attempts to curtail press freedom in the country. This is part of the reason the ANC had to backpedal at its recent policy conference on plans to establish the media tribunal.

This must have annoyed proponents of the tribunal in the ANC and SACP as they felt that the tribunal and other media curbs were necessary to restrain the perceived media onslaught against the government and the ANC. In the same way the ruling party’s disquiet over judicial independence has seen a series of moves to moderate the judiciary under the banner of transformation. 

The ANC’s default reaction to exposure of scandals, corruption and incompetence, as well as court ruling against it has been to look for ways to squash the messenger, rather than address the root of the problem. It is for this reason that the judiciary, the media, civil society and now Cosatu are viewed as problems that need to be corrected and fixed rather than essential components of a healthy democracy.

Cosatu is seemingly the easiest to deal with as compared to the other sectors, which mount resistance to these moves. As was obvious at the congress last week, the majority of the unions’ leaders were happy to bow to pressure from the ANC and SACP and have Cosatu adopt a less critical voice of government and direct its venom at business instead.

As the face of Cosatu, Vavi will have to make peace with the fact that the people who re-elected him did so on condition that he cease to project the labour federation as a voice of reason, willing to speak truth to power and instead play a more “constructive” role in the alliance. Whether Vavi can continue to function in his position on these conditions remain to be seen.

The real concern for South African society is whether the ANC is assuming the approach of other liberation organisations on the African continent which adopt a siege mentality when faced with harsh criticism, sometimes against the very structures which helped them to power. The biggest safeguard to this up to now has been that there are enough rational voices in the ANC and the alliance to pull the organisation back from behaving in a manner that could reverse democratic gains.

Over the years, these voices have diminished and speak less frequently as the bullies in the alliance shout them down. Last week’s congress and the finger-wagging at Vavi will serve as a further deterrent to those in the ANC who dare to speak out.

The ability not to remain silent in the face of repression and assault of human rights is the basis on which South Africa’s constitutional democracy was fought for and won. The right not to remain silent now is the basis on which democracy will be defended and upheld. DM

Photo: State workers seeking higher wages listen to their leader as they take part in a strike in Johannesburg September 2, 2010. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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