South Africa

Cosatu’s damning shop stewards’ report, and its increasingly untenable duality

By Sipho Hlongwane 12 December 2012

Cosatu’s general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is under a great amount of pressure these days. For months now, he’s had to dance a precarious line between personal conviction and collective decisions. It has now become even worse, as a study revealed that there was a big difference of opinions between the federation’s leadership and its shop stewards. The report has been shelved till next year March, but the whisper of inevitable change that will soon lead to a split with the ANC is gaining momentum. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

How are you supposed to handle yourself when you are the public face of an organisation that is facing internal turmoil and widening rifts? This is the question that the leaders of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) have been wrestling with for about a year now. The general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has been the one who has been sent out to bat on numerous occasions, and he’s had to champion an organisation that he personally disagrees with on many issues. The strain is starting to show. But more on that personal battle in a moment.

Cosatu is struggling to hold together – or, at least, the rifts that have been so artfully papered over in the past are starting to show. Previously we’ve always thought that the differences were political in nature. The big squabble leading up to the federation’s national conference in the middle of the year was about supporting the ANC’s president Jacob Zuma for a second term and supporting the party’s policy status quo or dropping him in favour of Kgalema Motlanthe and a more radical policy hue. 

On the one side sat the 330,000-strong (though that number will soon be disputed – Ed) National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which opposed the nationalisation of mines and the so-called strategic sectors of the economy and backed Zuma for a second term. On the other was the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), which lagged the massive NUM by some 40,000 members – it demanded a radical swing to the left and the removal of the ANC’s current leadership. The outcomes of the national conference were decided to appease these two sides in the federation (with lesser unions falling generally on either side) with Cosatu deciding to keep its current leaders while deferring an announcement on who to back at Mangaung. At a later meeting of the central executive committee (CEC) the party decided to endorse Zuma for a second term.

However, new rifts are emerging, and these are more strongly linked to the recent labour unrest and apparent disconnect between union bosses and ordinary members. According to Business Day, a report commissioned by Cosatu showed that its shop stewards were in disagreement with the leaders on several critical points. The federation was going to publish the report early this week, but has moved the date to March 2013.

In a press statement, the Forum for Public Dialogue (commissioned by Cosatu to survey 2,000 shop stewards) said, “The survey has found that Cosatu shop stewards want nationalisation, they have no confidence in the South African Communist Party, and they want Cosatu to form a labour party. On leadership – the study found that the majority of Cosatu shop stewards [did] not support Jacob Zuma’s re-election for the position of president of the ANC. Cosatu shop stewards are divided between Jacob Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe. This is despite Cosatu’s central executive committee’s decision to support Zuma’s bid for a second term.”

According to Vavi, the report was shelved because it wasn’t finished. “They (the forum) made a presentation to us and we realised that they have not finished, so we cancelled it,” he said to Business Day. 

Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven confirmed that position.

However, Business Day avers that the reason why the report’s publication date has been pushed back is because its findings are different to the leadership’s views. “It is understood the report’s release was shelved because Cosatu was ‘uncomfortable’ with its findings, which could ‘undermine’ the central executive committee’s position on leadership, informed sources said yesterday,” the paper said. 

The report is a serious slap in the face of the CEC’s decisions at the conference and in its aftermath. It flies in the face of the federation and NUM’s contention that the Marikana tragedy was not an existential crisis, but rather outside forces trying to undermine the unity of the workers. Now it seems like the average Cosatu worker thinks – like so many workers we’ve interviewed in the platinum mining belt – that the organisation needs to form its own labour party. This is a strong rejection of the federation’s alliance with the African National Congress, where many federation bosses occupy top positions. 

The report makes it awkward for Vavi and the like to then publicly state support for Zuma. No small wonder it will not see the light of day until long after the ANC’s Mangaung conference. 

Vavi is in an increasingly difficult position. He has been one of the most heavy-handed when criticising the ANC. He came up with the “hyenas” soundbite. He’s been the forefront of the fight against the nationalists and the tenderpreneur class within the ruling party. Only recently he blasted the ruling party as the “Absolutely No Consequences” collective. But as Cosatu general secretary, he has to be its public face and also a champion of the collective decisions. Even those with which he disagrees. 

“Some friends [are] putting me under pressure to disown & campaign against decisions of the collective & then still call myself a democrat – I can’t,” he protested on Twitter. He acknowledged that the dual line he had to walk was annoying the public.

“Yes, all have a democratic right but it ends when majority have spoken – that is a price & beauty of belonging to a democratic organisation,” he said.

Of course, without Cosatu actually releasing the report before Mangaung, it is impossible to challenge him on the duality between what the CEC has decided to do at the ANC policy conference and what the ordinary members on the ground are saying. It also begs the question of how the leadership could have gone away declaring that it received a mandate to support a Zuma re-election only for an independent survey to show that it wasn’t that clear-cut. 

The federation lost a glorious opportunity when it decided to water down a resolution on Marikana at its congress. Instead of being harsh on the police and taking on a stance which would have chimed with the results of the survey, it chose to molly-coddle the ruling party and the police. Worse still, the Marikana Commission of Inquiry might decide differently to Cosatu, which would be a ripe breeding ground for ordinary workers to wonder why their views (confirmed resoundingly as they would be) are not being represented by their leaders. 

We risk being accused of being anti-Cosatu, but the question has to be asked: will the current Cosatu leaders jump if their members demand they do so in a direction previously thought unthinkable? Can Vavi, S’dumo Dlamini and the other leaders break away from the ANC if asked to do so? For now, the answer is a resounding no. DM

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Photo by Greg Nicolson


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