South Africa

South Africa

Cosatu ceasefire: ANC takes the wheel

Cosatu ceasefire: ANC takes the wheel

The statement released by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) after its three-day central executive committee meeting contained several curious lines. But nothing was more surprising than the use of the term “unanimously” regarding the agreements reached. The last time Cosatu was unanimous about anything was 18 years ago when it decided the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) macroeconomic strategy was the work of the devil. Cosatu claims it has put its numerous battles in abeyance pending the outcome of an ANC intervention. What it has done is concede that its leadership is incapable of sorting out its troubles and handed the responsibility over to the ANC. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

If there were really unanimity around the decisions reached during the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) meeting this week, the largest affiliate, metalworkers’ union Numsa, would not be gathering its own executive together this weekend to decide how to react. Numsa was most affected by the decisions taken at the Cosatu CEC, and though its leaders are keeping mum for now, expecting them to do so for the next month is being highly optimistic.

The one thing the ANC can do effectively is negotiate peace agreements; it is recognised internationally for this skill. From negotiations with the Apartheid government to a peace pact with the Inkatha Freedom Party to stop violence in KwaZulu-Natal, as well as mediation efforts on the African continent and Northern Ireland, ANC leaders know how to get people around a table and talk it out. The ANC task team on Cosatu, led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, has already pulled off a major feat by keeping the lid on hostilities during the election period, even though the federation was effectively at war with itself.

This week’s CEC meeting was the first gathering of the Cosatu leadership following the elections, and therefore the first opportunity for open warfare again. The issues still being fought over are general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s disciplinary case, the forensic investigation into allegations of impropriety over the sale of Cosatu’s old headquarters and purchase of the new building, the call for a special national congress by nine affiliates, the move to suspend or expel Numsa and the poaching of members from sister unions.

After the South Gauteng High Court ruled in April that Vavi’s eight-month suspension was invalid, the ANC task team met with the Cosatu CEC and prevented a move to reinstate disciplinary charges against him. There were also aggressive moves to boot Numsa out of Cosatu. However, the ANC intervention averted the battles in Cosatu exploding at a time when they needed the alliance to close ranks and hit the campaign trail. It was a clumsy truce then as Numsa had already taken a decision at its special congress in December not to support the ANC in the 2014 elections, and they stuck by this resolution.

After the elections, Numsa came out firing again after its own central committee meeting, vowing to forge ahead with plans to form a “United Front”, a working class movement, and condemned the “neoliberal trajectory” of the ANC government. Numsa also called for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma for his role in the security upgrades at his Nkandla residence. Regarding the situation in Cosatu, Numsa said: “The [central committee] is not convinced that the ANC task team intervention in the last special Cosatu CEC was genuine and sees it for what it is, an election ploy, as the ANC and the SACP have themselves always been part of the problem. However in the interest of unity Numsa did not oppose this intervention.”

These statements would definitely have infuriated Numsa’s detractors, particularly Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini, who was served with court papers earlier this month by the metalworkers’ union and its allies, demanding that he convene a special national congress.

In this milieu, Cosatu’s CEC this week could have been a bloody affair. But that is not what the ANC wants. It has deployed a team led by its second highest official to mediate in the Cosatu dispute because it knows that an almighty fallout and subsequent split in the federation will have consequences for the ANC itself. Although the 2014 elections showed that the ANC does not really need Cosatu to campaign to maintain electoral dominance, there is something else the ruling party is worried about.

As long as Cosatu unions are locked into a ceasefire, however awkward, it inhibits Numsa from advancing the agenda to build a movement in opposition to the ANC. Although none of the other Cosatu affiliates have yet declared their intention to join Numsa’s United Front, once the metalworkers union sets off on its consultation process, the latent unhappiness with the ANC amongst the working class will become more apparent.

While the 2014 elections gave the ANC an uphill run in some areas, a new working class movement, which might incorporate existing political parties and civic organisations, could pose severe problems for the ANC at the polls. Therefore, the Cosatu intervention is now more intense, with stringent safeguards to prevent the parties from going rogue.

Cosatu’s national office bearers announced at a media briefing on Thursday that the CEC “unanimously agreed to give the ANC a chance to intervene in the current difficulties facing the federation”.

“There is a need for a ‘cessation’ of hostilities and this means all affiliates and all leaders of the federation and members should stop all activities which will militate against the achievement of this strategic objective of preserving the integrity of the unity of workers under Cosatu.

The terms of the intervention gives the ANC inordinate powers. Cosatu said the package to be developed by the ANC “should address the leadership question, including choosing of leaders, deployment of leaders, [and] personalities in leadership that could compromise unity”.

“The package should include addressing governance issues such as disciplinary processes underway or in the future as well as the call for a special national congress.”

The ANC task team has a month to complete its work, during which time it will meet seven of the federation’s unions it has not yet been able to consult with. Cosatu resolved that there should be a “cessation of hostilities” until the ANC presents a final report on the outcome of its mediation. This stand-down arrangement has also been extended to other formations in the alliance “in order to help create the best possible climate for unity and cohesion” (read Blade Nzimande is not allowed to carp at Irvin Jim publicly).

Cosatu also announced that the court action by eight affiliates to force Dlamini to convene a special national congress would be “held in abeyance” pending the ANC process. “If, at the end of that period, the applicants (in the high court case) are not satisfied with the outcome of the ANC process and want to proceed with the application, they will give written notice to Cosatu of their intention to proceed, whether on the same or supplemented papers…” the Cosatu statement read.

All the unions have been prohibited from speaking to the media on these matters while the intervention is in progress. ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte and Cosatu deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali have been mandated to police this agreement with powers “to intervene on all alleged violations to this agreement”. In addition, if the Cosatu office bearers feel that any union is not fully cooperating with the intervention, there will convene a special CEC to report the problem.

The Cosatu leaders were not able to answer many questions from the media about the process ahead due to the embargo on public statements. Dlamini said, however, that the federation had the right to accept or reject the final package that would be presented by the ANC.

Although the ANC is proficient at brokering deals between warring parties, this intervention might prove to be a real challenge. The Cosatu CEC has now acknowledged that “at the centre of the divisions are political and ideological differences”. Those political and ideological differences are not only between competing unions but also between the workers and the ANC. How, then, will the ANC contend with fundamental problems some unions have with its trajectory and outlook, and still try to play the role of a nuetral mediator?

With a large portion of Cosatu still sympathetic to the ANC, its “package” is bound to be welcomed by some, no matter what it contains. Others are bound to reject the proposals because they are already suspicious of the ANC’s motives.

The ANC has a month to put the genie back in the bottle. Although where Cosatu is concerned, the ANC usually gets what the ANC wants, a united, functional federation is a mighty big ask. If the ungainly ceasefire even holds for the four weeks, it will be a huge achievement. DM

Photo: With apologies to Marx, Engels & Lenin.


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