South Africa

The huge elephant that is Cosatu: A disrupted federation, but what about the workers?

By Greg Nicolson 28 February 2014

Cosatu’s leadership briefed media on Thursday after a meeting of the federation’s central executive committee. GREG NICOLSON was there and wonders, with all the focus on the Zwelinzima Vavi and Numsa, who’s looking out for the workers?

Two identical portraits of Elijah Barayi loom over Cosatu’s boardroom. Famed photographer David Goldblatt snapped the image in 1986, the year after Barayi’s election as Cosatu’s first president. Barayi’s arms are folded, a wistful smile on his lips as he looks to the corner of the frame. Like all struggle icons, his words have been immortalised by his organisation.

In 1985 Barayi gave PW Botha six months to scrap pass laws. Within six months they were gone. In his first May Day message, the Cosatu president said, “We urge all worker leaders… and all patriots in South Africa to work together, plan and coordinate our actions to win our freedom and break the chains of poverty and cheap labour which bind the majority of people in South Africa today.”

Between the portraits sit four long rows of wooden desks, leather chairs and microphones (it might be a revolutionary house, but why should anyone have to yell?). Barayi gazes over what his federation of unions has become, a behemoth of organised labour with a lucrative investment arm whose leaders work alongside, rather than against, the governing party.

The federation is as strong as ever despite critics preparing a coffin for Cosatu’s demise, says President Sidumo Dlamini, wearing a Nehawu (the union he comes from) shirt supporting the ANC. Kindly, he offers the media a narrative: Cosatu is like a huge elephant running across the veld. It speeds up. It slows down. There are ticks along the way but it emerges as a stronger federation (by this point Dlamini had lost the analogy).

The reasons for the dire predictions about Cosatu aren’t far from the boardroom. In the building, Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi slept with a junior employee and during the move to the new digs he has been accused of misconduct related to the sale of the old Cosatu House. His suspension has nine unions upset and they’re demanding his reinstatement.

Then there’s Dlamini himself, accused of setting the elephant on a different course. Vavi, it goes, is critical of President Jacob Zuma’s ANC government, its blueprint for the future of the country, and wants a socialist twist in the country’s cocktail of economic policies. South Africa’s largest union the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa) wants even more radical policies than Vavi and sees his suspension as an attempt by Dlamini & Co. to silence one of Zuma’s critics and one of social-based policy’s strongest proponents.

“The ZV matter is not a new matter in the federation. Remember Madisha?” asks Dlamini, mentioning expelled Cosatu president William Madisha and a list of others. Presumably they’re the ticks, but the elephant moves on.

“You are wrong,” Dlamini tells the prophets of doom.

But Cosatu could be in for some big changes. On Thursday, the federation gave Numsa another seven days to say why it shouldn’t be suspended or expelled. Numsa has made resolutions, such as not to tell members to vote for the ANC and look into setting up a workers party, which are “diametrically opposed” to Cosatu’s policies, says the federation. It also wants a special congress to reinstate Vavi. Neither dispute is likely to be settled. Numsa won’t change resolutions agreed to by members. And the Cosatu leadership is giving the nine unions who want a special congress the run around. Last month the CEC said no to a special congress; but now we’re waiting for the President to officially say no. It’s easier to prolong the issue than shut it down outright and battle the problem in court.

The Cosatu elephant will not stumble and turn into a carcass. The federation is too big, with too many tentacles and too much influence to disappear. But if we think of the federation as a herd of elephants there are some that might break off, thinning the group as they change direction, becoming rival rather than familial unionists.

Unfortunately, all of the above has little to do with the working class, union members, and conditions in mineshafts, factory floors, schools and nurses’ quarters. In fact, there’s almost nothing to do with workers in the statement issued from Cosatu’s top executives. There’s a warning against members poaching workers from other unions, which is a thinly veiled criticism of Numsa’s push for mineworkers, requests for a day off on 1 May and 7 May, and a slither on the failed attempt to engineer a “Lula moment”.

Dlamini admitted Cosatu’s work has been affected by internal politics. “I do say and admit when these things happen you shouldn’t undermine them. You should pay attention to them and at that moment you are off your programme… What do I call it? Dis-rup-tion,” said the president.

“Cosatu is a body. It has a life in it. The pulse is there. The heart is pumping,” he continued. It seems, however, the living, breathing federation is too distracted from workers’ issues.

It’s hard to dispute that Cosatu currently has two preoccupations – supporting the ANC election campaign and pacifying Numsa and Vavi. While Dlamini’s leaders try to delay any decisions on Vavi and Numsa until after the elections – expelling Numsa or going to a special congress where the current leadership might be replaced could be disastrous for the ANC – the workers who are supposed to be represented by the organisation of Barayi are neglected.

Little wonder the Association of Mineworkers and Construction (AMCU) union has found it so easy to infiltrate the mining industry. There’s no surprise some of the working class and unemployed are looking towards the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The tripartite alliance’s working class election arm, Cosatu, is dis-rup-ted. DM

Photo:  Cosatu acting General Secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali and President S’dumo Dlamini at the press conference on Thursday, 27 February 2014. (Thapelo Lekgowa)


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