South Africa

Cosatu and the ANC: From Basic Instinct to Fatal Attraction

By Ranjeni Munusamy 13 March 2013

If ever the contradictions and disjuncture between the ANC and its labour ally Cosatu were apparent, it was on Tuesday at the trade union federation’s bargaining conference. Gwede Mantashe and Zwelinzima Vavi, the respective managerial heads of their organisations, in effect pointed accusatory fingers at each other. It is becoming increasingly difficult to manage a relationship nurtured by history and yet trapped by nostalgia, and it is increasingly becoming a farce, for all to see. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Political leaders do not get more forthright than ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe. He pulls no punches and is as blunt as they come. When asked by Daily Maverick on Tuesday why he and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi were talking at cross purposes in their addresses to the labour federation’s bargaining, organising and campaigns conference, his response was: “We are not an extension of Cosatu.”

Earlier, rounding up his address, Vavi turned to Mantashe and said: “This conference will emerge with a fighting programme. The ANC must come to the party… it had an historic bias to the poor and workers. It is not a class neutral party. We don’t want neutrality any more. We want a developmental state.”

Later, closing his address, Mantashe said in response: “The ANC is multi-class movement. It will take decisions that you don’t like. Say what you want to say, but don’t expect us to be shop stewards.”

There is no way of reconciling these statements. It was each side declaring its bottom line and the contradiction is stark: Cosatu and the ANC are now further apart than they have ever been.

The relationship in the tripartite alliance was carefully managed last year ahead of the ANC’s Mangaung conference, so that the paradoxes did not blow up completely, and impact on the leadership elections. Cosatu itself managed to avoid divisive elections at its own national congress last September, but only just. Now Cosatu is trying to push for the radical economic transformation the ANC had promised, and to deal with organisational weaknesses and divisions, but the ruling party seems to be playing hardball – particularly over the federation’s opposition to the National Development Plan.

Vavi said this week’s four-day conference was taking place at a time when the labour movement “is facing some very serious challenges – both internal and external”. He said some were “self-inflicted, and some are being pursued by our class enemies, to fatally weaken us.”

This was in reference to the discord within Cosatu, manifest in unsubstantiated accusations of corruption against Vavi in the media, which has now split the federation into two distinct camps. Some of the affiliate unions, including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Nehawu (the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union), have coalesced around Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini, while metalworkers’ union Numsa and teachers’ union Sadtu have come out in defence of Vavi. Although Cosatu’s leadership is trying to manage the tension and present a united front, Vavi is clearly distressed by the allegations and his detractors are not letting up.

“This calls for cool heads and clear strategies. We are convinced that we can rise to the occasion. But how we deal with these challenges could determine the future of the labour movement for the next 20 years,” Vavi told the bargaining conference on Tuesday.

The conference is clearly an effort to regroup and focus on the core mandate of the federation – to best represent its members in the workplace.

“The central thrust of this week’s conference lies in the axis of organising and collective bargaining, and the relationship between the two. Right in the middle of this axis stands the need to deliver to our members on wages and working conditions. We are truly called to go back to basics, and reassert the fundamental values and organisational culture of our movement; but also to be creative in the way we exercise the power of worker democracy, under new conditions which are emerging. And develop innovative strategies which rightfully position the trade union movement as a leader of society,” Vavi said.

Vavi said 2012 was an “extremely tough year” for Cosatu and its affiliates in general, but particularly for biggest affiliate, the NUM in the platinum sector. While not referring directly to the worker rebellion against the NUM and the massacre of 34 mineworkers, Vavi said Cosatu and the NUM had not been “immune” to the damage resulting from the turn of events at Marikana.

“We can analyse a situation until we are blue in the face. What is important is to find a constructive and united way forward to rebuild our collective power and our capacity to deliver to our members,” he said.

In order to win the confidence of their members, affiliate unions and the federation need to service their workers more effectively and reduce the “social distance” between shop stewards and union leaders with the base membership.

“We should also be very careful about the pay and benefits of our officials, including elected officials, and benefits of elected worker leaders or office bearers across the federation and affiliates. We can never, and should never even try to compete with salaries and conditions in business and government. We would be hypocritical if we were to reproduce the pay gaps that exist outside of our movement. The last thing we want in the federation is a large layer of leadership with increasingly bourgeois interests, who will become unwilling to challenge the economic status quo because of their material conditions,” Vavi said.

He also railed against corruption in the trade union movement: “We cannot be calling on government to take action against corruption and then sweep it under the carpet in our own house.”

Vavi said Corruption Watch had received a handful of allegations against union leadership from members of affiliates. “We should not be afraid of this. Where the complaints are fabricated or malicious the authorities will discover this very quickly. But where there is truth to the complaints we must accept that there will be consequences.”

While acknowledging the weaknesses in the federation, Vavi was also clear that there is a huge dispute with the ANC government over socio-economic issues, the basis of a Section 77 notice to protest and strike. The respondents in the dispute are the key economic government ministries.

In a presentation that was more than 11,000-words long, Vavi mentioned the National Development Plan (NDP) – now the centrepiece of ANC policy formulation – once. The National Planning Commission (NPC), which produced the plan, also received a single mention. Both references were less than favourable. Cosatu wants to discard the NDP and revert to tenets of the Freedom Charter and the Reconstruction and Development Plan. This is particularly in reference to setting a national minimum wage and basic conditions of employment.

Mantashe ignored all of this in his speech to the conference, instead holding the mirror up to Cosatu, and occasionally shooting at the kneecaps. He said the federation should confront whether it was promoting its founding principles, particularly being able to better serve its members by having one union per industry.

“From where we are sitting the federation is fast putting the founding principles in back burner with Cosatu unions fighting it out in the field. The Eskom strike in Medupi is a case in point where the NUM and Numsa competed and fought over some principle issues they should ordinarily agree on. When they disagreed they undermined each other and therefore became weaker in dealing with the employers. The strike almost fizzled out as a result with some settlement being found when the strike was falling apart,” Mantashe said.

He also blamed “anarchy and rowdiness” during strikes involving Cosatu unions for police intervention, which leads to incidents of brutality.

“When every strike is characterised by destruction of property and violence the federation must be worried because such behaviour invites the state to be part of collective bargaining. Then we get derailed into discussing the brutality of police and the issues at hand get lost. Police gets put in a difficult situation in that when they act against this anarchy they get accused of brutality and when they don’t act the state is projected as weak and allowing lawlessness,” Mantashe said.

The NUM in the platinum mines and the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) in De Doorns paid the price and still have to recover from doing away with house rules being ignored and lawlessness taking over, he said.

Cosatu, Mantashe warned, is on a “dangerous downward slope”. Unions are under siege and less equipped to deal with the difficult situations they face.

“Unions are fast replacing solid organisation with anarchy and therefore fast blunting this important tool of bargaining and striking. The federation is not only divided but it is saying so itself and thus weakening itself in the public eye.

“You’re going to actively destroy it. In a year’s time there will be no Cosatu… All other campaigns are going to fall flat if there is no organisation,” Mantashe said.

In other words, Cosatu is responsible for its own destruction and should get its own house in order before shouting at the ANC.

As a parting shot Mantashe mentioned that the ANC needed Cosatu to step in in areas where it was weak, like Gauteng. He also said he was not hearing Cosatu’s voice when the ANC was under attack in the media.

Decoded, this means: We’ll need you on the election campaign trail and to step up to defend the ANC. Otherwise, stop nagging and deal with your own problems.

Mantashe told Vavi point bank that he did not want to respond to all the other issues he raised: “The ANC is multi-class movement. It will take decisions that you don’t like. Say what you want to say, but don’t expect us to be shop stewards… I am the secretary general of the ANC, that’s what I am and what I do well.”

Asked afterwards why the ANC was not trying to bridge the gap between government and Cosatu on the NDP, Mantashe said: “I am not a commissioner [of the NPC].”

When asked why he ignored Vavi’s demand that the ANC restore its bias towards the poor and working class, Mantashe repeated: “We are multi-class. Those contradictions are there.”

When Thabo Mbeki was ANC president, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party both felt alienated and unwanted in the alliance. They fought to remain in it and were at the forefront of the campaign to defeat Mbeki. The tripartite alliance was a formidable force against Apartheid and they argued that it remained relevant and necessary to advance political and socio-economic change under the democratic government. Now under the people who replaced Mbeki – Jacob Zuma and Gwede Mantashe – Cosatu has been relegated to the sidelines.

Today, Cosatu faces the biggest threat yet to its existence.

It has only has two weapons in its arsenal to ensure the ANC pays attention: strike action and election campaign power. However, as long as Cosatu remains divided and under internal stress, its ability to mobilise against the government is compromised. There could also be external forces pulling the strings behind the scenes to manipulate the federation.

A strong and powerful Cosatu is ultimately no longer in the interests of the ANC government. A weak and pliable Cosatu is. The federation’s leaders should consider this carefully before deciding on a plan of action this week.

But Zwelinzima Vavi, it would appear, is already patently aware of this fact – which is why the crosshairs remain clear on his forehead. DM

Photo: Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi at the union federation’s collective bargaining, organising, and campaigns conference in Boksburg on Tuesday 12 March 2013 (Werner Beukes/Sapa)

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