South Africa

Workers’ Day: The tripartite alliance papers over the cracks

By Khadija Patel 2 May 2013

The ANC, Cosatu and the SACP all took to the podium on Workers’ Day to re-affirm their commitment to the campaign for the rights of the country’s labourers. But even as they recognised the need for a concerted effort towards addressing the actual problems of workers, alliance leaders could not ignore the divisions currently impeding their efforts. By KHADIJA PATEL.

It is meant to be a day for workers, a day set aside on the international calendar to re-affirm a commitment to the struggle of workers for jobs befitting human beings (and not quasi slaves). Workers’ Day is the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, in which police clashed with workers campaigning for an eight-hour workday.

The spirit that drove those workers survives, too. The bloody standoff that pitted striking mine workers against a mining giant and the police in Marikana last year reminds us all that the campaign for workers’ rights in South Africa today remains as relevant as it was 127 years ago in Chicago.

That strike at the Lonmin mine triggered a wave of strike action across the mining sector that exposed a critical weakness in the National Union of Mineworkers. There is a fundamental disconnect between union leaders and the issues driving them, and union members who feel cut off from the decision-making structures of the unions. Months on from those strikes, NUM leaders, together with their colleagues at other Cosatu affiliates, are said to be embroiled in an unseemly tug of war for the heart and soul of the trade union federation. And while they squabble and then piously deny any squabbling, trade unions in South Africa are struggling to channel workers’ concerns.

The battle to assert political patronage in Cosatu has become a sideshow to the trade union’s virulent opposition to the National Development Plan. The NDP plots a course of action for South Africa until 2030, including proposals of completely eradicating poverty and moving to reduce South Africa’s Gini coefficient inequality rating from 0.7 in 2009 to 0.6 in the next 17 years. Cosatu, however, believes that the NDP will be implemented to the detriment of workers’ rights. Their reservations have so far fallen on deaf ears – the ANC adopted the NDP at its elective conference in Mangaung last December.

On this score, Cosatu seems to have been caught wrong-footed, reacting to a plan for the country to beat inequality and create employment opportunities instead of setting the agenda themselves. This is a far cry from the Cosatu of old, which set the tone of the ANC’s policies in the past.

In his book, Fighting For Justice, the founding general secretary of Cosatu, Jay Naidoo, quotes Bernie Fanaroff (who helped to build the Metal and Allied Workers’ Union, which later became the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa [Numsa]): “We started working on the forum of the Reconstruction and Development Programme. Because we wanted to have a union position that said ‘in any negotiation these are the kind of things that you’ve got to achieve’. And as that grew, the ANC started to become part of developing the RDP; so instead of being a union initiative – it became the programme for the Alliance.”

When he spoke at a rally at Bethlehem in the Free State on Wednesday, Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was no doubt acutely aware of the perilous position in which the trade union federation currently finds itself. He emphasised the need for worker unity if the transformation of the South African economy is to be achieved. He said this goal could not be driven by organisations suffering from internal differences.

Reports of a leadership struggle in Cosatu have been rife in recent months and were fuelled earlier this year when Vavi was accused of corruption over the sale of the federation’s former headquarters.

Vavi’s purported rival in the alliance, Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini, meanwhile told a Workers Day rally in Galeshewe, Kimberley that the trade union federation “is stronger than before”.  Dlamini claimed Cosatu was under attack from subversive elements that sought to undermine the trade union federation. “We (the leadership) shall work hard to fend off any attempt to try and divide us,” he said.

And with next year’s general election in mind, Dlamini urged workers to go out and convince people to vote ANC. “We shall do that; it’s our duty to do so,” he said.

Numsa Secretary General, Irvin Jim, cautioned the ANC to pay better attention to workers’ rights if the party still wanted the vote of workers. Speaking at a rally in Sharpeville, Jim issued a thinly veiled warning to the ANC:

“We vote for the ANC because there is a history. We have done that in the past and cannot do it permanently.

“The ANC must take cognisance of workers rights… we cannot give that task to the Democratic Alliance,” he said.

Jim nonetheless reiterated the decision of Cosatu to support the ANC at next year’s national elections.

Speaking at a rally in Kimberley, President Jacob Zuma exhorted workers to work for unity in Cosatu. “Unity in Cosatu is paramount. We need a united Cosatu to promote the rights of workers,” he said.

He said unity among workers was their best weapon and also the cornerstone of the tripartite alliance’s democratic forces.

SA Communist Party (SACP) general-secretary Blade Nzimande, speaking alongside Zuma in Kimberley, also urged workers to unite with Cosatu. “Unity must be the message of today,” he said. “Stand and defend the unity of Cosatu and [the] effort to drive Cosatu out of the [tripartite] alliance.

“A toothless Cosatu that is simply a conveyor belt for the ANC-led government is no use even to the ANC-led government. It will simply be by-passed and outflanked by pseudo-militants,” Nzimande said. “We need a principled unity across our Alliance, a unity in action based on a common struggle against unemployment, against poverty, against inequality, and against corruption.”

Addressing a Workers’ Day rally in Cape Town, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba also urged unity in the trade union federation. “The strength of the ANC itself depends on the unity of the working class. The Cosatu leadership must put aside everything and prioritise their unity so that the working class themselves can be united,” he said.

He insisted the alliance was stronger than ever and that those who were trying to write its obituary would be left disappointed. “This alliance will long outlive our opponents and we will bury them, but we want our enemies to live long enough to see the alliance grow stronger… to see the alliance to delivery on its mandate to the people of our country.”

Gigaba also tackled the differences between the ANC and Cosatu.

“When we differ among ourselves we remain united. Even when we debate the National Development Plan, even when we debate anything, we remain united.”

ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, addressing a rally in Rustenburg, dove straight into one of the prickliest issues in Cosatu – the relevance and influence of NUM. He told workers that Rustenburg must be declared “National Union of Mineworkers territory”.

He told workers not to allow other organisations to divide NUM in an “attack” on the trade union in Rustenberg. “We must declare Rustenberg alliance territory. Rustenberg must be restored. This is the home of the African National Congress.”

The ANC’s deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte accused the media of “writing nonsense” when it comes to the differences in the tripartite alliance.  “We know there are problems within our alliance partners, but let us not run to this corrupt media,” she said at a rally near Nelspruit.

Deputy secretary-general of Cosatu Bheki Ntshalintshali, meanwhile, was especially mindful of the need to recruit first time voters to the ANC’s ranks. “We want the ANC to win with a more than two-third majority next year. Let’s make sure these first-time voters, whom we call born-free and who speak English, don’t vote for the ones who speak English like them,” Ntshalintshali said.

The electioneering will no doubt be amplified in the coming months but it is the fate of Cosatu itself that will be determined within the next few weeks. The impact of whatever happens in Cosatu, its success or failure to withstand the differences plaguing the federation and then the differences with the ANC over issues like the NDP, will not be contained to the trade union federation. Neither will it be contained to the tripartite alliance. It will point the way ahead for the rest of the country. DM

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Photo: President Jacob Zuma sings at a rally celebrating Workers’ Day at Galeshewe Stadium in Kimberley in the Northern Cape on Wednesday, 1 May 2013. Also pictured is Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini. Picture: GCIS/SAPA


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