South Africa

Just say it, Cosatu: South Africa, we have a problem

By Ranjeni Munusamy 24 July 2013

At the end of May, Cosatu’s central executive committee meeting ended abruptly. The federation announced that another meeting would be called by the second week of July. It didn’t happen. Cosatu also said that a bilateral between its two biggest affiliates, NUM and Numsa, would take place in June. It didn’t take place. When Daily Maverick reported that Cosatu is in trouble due to internal turbulence, the federation strongly objected, issuing a statement of denial in our honour. A month has gone by and still nothing is happening. Perhaps Cosatu would have more chance of making headway of it concedes it has a serious problem? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The ANC, SA Communist Party and Cosatu were meant to hold an alliance economic summit in early July. It was postponed, indefinitely. Considering the country’s poor growth outlook and the destructive impact on the economy, it is difficult to fathom why it is so hard for the alliance partners to convene a meeting to thrash out their differences over economic policy and particularly the National Development Plan (NDP).

The reason perhaps is that the leaders of the three organisations are aware that the only thing possibly more harmful to the economy than them not meeting is the ruling alliance having the summit and it ending in a stalemate. Particularly in an election year, it would be devastating to finally acknowledge that the relationship is unworkable and that it is not possible to iron out their differences. This would also further shake already falling investor confidence and increase the negative outlook for the country.

But apart from this eventuality, it is difficult for the alliance to meet when one of partners is battling internal turbulence and is facing a leadership crisis – even if they will not admit it publicly.

Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) meeting at the end of May ground to a halt on the second day due to serious infighting between factions loyal to and against the general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Vavi is the subject of an internal probe to determine whether the allegations of impropriety and disloyalty, claimed by some Cosatu unions, are true.

At a media briefing that week though, Cosatu completely denied the wrangling and pegged the stories about the clashes during the meeting down to an evil media agenda. Cosatu leaders claimed there were no “fundamental” issues of contention. They said however that there were “some problematic ideological, organisational and administrative issues” which arose at the February CEC and which two facilitators Petrus Mashishi and Charles Nupen would discuss with union presidents and general secretaries.

An auditing firm, SizweNtsalubaGobodo, was appointed to conduct a forensic audit to determine whether there was any financial misappropriation in the sale of Cosatu’s old headquarters and the purchase of its new building. Cosatu office bearers repeatedly denied that it is Vavi under investigation for the alleged fraud in relation to the sale and purchase of the buildings, although it is well known that he stands accused by some of the affiliates of benefitting from these transactions.

It was also announced that a political commission would be convened to prepare for the alliance summit, to “assess” Cosatu’s position on the NDP and a Section 77 strike notice on economic transformation. Cosatu also announced that it would facilitate a bilateral meeting between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) “to discuss outstanding issues”. It did not say what these are but it is well known that the two unions lead the respective factions in Cosatu and have been at loggerheads for some time. Part of the problem is territorial, with NUM accusing Numsa of poaching mineworkers and Numsa refusing to hand over Eskom workers to NUM.

In June, Daily Maverick reported that this bilateral meeting did not take place as there was no hope of a resolution between the two unions and previous attempts by Cosatu to broker a settlement were fruitless.

Cosatu took exception to our report and issued a statement of denial claiming that the reason the NUM-Numsa bilateral did not take place was because a bilateral meeting between the SACP and Cosatu took place instead. It said the meeting between the two unions would be re-scheduled.

It is now exactly a month since this supposed clash of schedules but no new date has yet been set. Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven on Tuesday said “I haven’t yet heard of one”. Alliance sources, including in the two unions, said it was doubtful that the bilateral would take place anytime soon as the atmosphere was too polluted for any kind of constructive engagement.

The Cosatu statement also disputed that it does not have a consolidated position on the NDP. It said the political commission met in June and adopted a resolution on the NDP. The problem though is that while this is purportedly Cosatu’s universal position on the NDP, which is vehemently opposed to large sections of the plan, not all the affiliate unions are owning this position. While Numsa is extra vocal in its opposition, unions aligned to NUM are not. So if Cosatu went to the alliance economic summit ready to challenge the NDP but some of its affiliates were half-hearted about it, why would the ANC take them seriously?

Even this week, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said at a media briefing that the ANC “cannot fall over itself to appease Cosatu”. Why then would the ANC pay attention to Cosatu’s fierce objections to the NDP and even consider overhauling it when they know he federation is a house divided?

After the May’s stalled CEC, it was announced that another central executive committee meeting would be convened “in the first or (at very latest) second week of July 2013 to amongst other discuss the facilitators’ report”. No announcement has been made as to why this meeting has not been called yet.

It is understood that the facilitators, Mashishi and Nupen are still busy receiving submissions from the affiliate unions on the allegations against Vavi. Media reports have alleged that Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini and deputy president Zingiswa Losi are among those who have testified against Vavi. The factions are also still in dispute over the process of the investigation with Numsa wanting the submissions to be made available to all Cosatu structures with others, such as the National Education Health and Allied workers Union (Nehawu), not willing to do so.

Craven would only say this week that “the process is proceeding” and said he was not aware at what stage of the investigation the facilitators were. It is also not known whether the audit report has been complete. Craven said the CEC would meet again at a scheduled meeting at the end of August but could not say why a meeting could not take place in July, as had been announced.

As Daily Maverick reported last week, Vavi is in the meantime living in fear of his life after receiving death threats. It is not known whether the threats are related to the turbulence within Cosatu but Vavi is sufficiently spooked to have enhanced his security detail and extremely cautious about all forms of electronic communications.

After all the repeated denials and claims that all is well within Cosatu, what then will happen once the federation has to consider the investigation and audit reports? How does Vavi continue to act as its figurehead with leaders of affiliate unions and his fellow office bearers lining up to stick the knife in?

And is it in any way possible that after all these processes reach a natural conclusion, Cosatu would go back to being a united federation and a fully functioning partner in the alliance? Whoever still believes that is living in a fool’s paradise.

Cosatu is in serious trouble and everybody knows it.

The papering over the cracks and denials need to stop. The façade is now becoming a joke. In order to solve the problem, Cosatu first needs to acknowledge it has a problem at all.

And it is not what the media is saying about Cosatu that should be the primary concern, it is what its two million members think that matters. With so many other players entering the political playing field and wanting to capture the attention of the workers, Cosatu is running out of time to get its house in order. If it does not, its value as powerful ally to the ANC may soon be greatly diminished. And the distance from power could set a downward spiral that would be difficult to arrest. DM

Photo: Zwelinzima Vavi (Jordi Matas)

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