South Africa

South Africa

Coming soon: Cosatu’s Armageddon button

Coming soon: Cosatu’s Armageddon button

With so many different dynamics, claims, and finger gestures in our politics, it can be hard to concentrate on the really important trends - the ones that are going to have a major impact in the longer term. Something that’s been flying under the radar for the last few months is what appears to be the imminent break-up of COSATU. But it has been thrown into sharp relief by the fact that its Central Committee is nearly upon us. And a Central Executive Committee meeting that was due to start today has been put off for another week. It appears that the break-up cannot be put off much longer. Even if breaking up is so very hard to do. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The delay in a meeting of the top brass of a political organisation can really have only two reasons. Procedural/technical, or political. In this case, the suspicion is going to be that the reason is political, even though COSATU’s Patrick Craven has stressed that the delay was due to a procedural issue. The fact is, and has been admitted, that COSATU’s CEC (or committee of the heads of its member unions plus its own provincial leaders) is split on an issue, and simply cannot resolve it.

The issue is not whether or not rooibos and Earl Grey should be supplied free in the canteen. The issue is whether or not the National Union of Metalworkers of SA should be expelled. NUMSA is, in case you’ve forgotten, the biggest union in the federation. Which means that leaving would be a pretty big deal.

It gets worse for COSATU in that NUMSA wouldn’t go on its own. Other unions would follow; then many of the unions that belong to COSATU, and some of those that would leave, would possibly all split on the issue of whether or not to stay within COSATU.

The expulsion of NUMSA would pretty much press the button to Armageddon.

So it’s important to know just how close they’ve come to actually doing it. Union leaders within a previous CEC before the May elections have suggested that in fact they were about to vote, and vote to expel NUMSA, when Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa broke down the door and begged them to postpone. This they did, and he and ANC deputy Secretary General Jessie Duarte then created a task team to “intervene”. Even if, in Alliance-speak, one member of the alliance should not “intervene” in the affairs of another.

It’s at this planned CEC that the ANC task team is due to report back on its efforts. Presumably, with the best will in the world, they will have to report back that they’ve failed. NUMSA claimed several times it was unable to meet with Ramaphosa and Duarte because of “diary clashes” and even after some kind of discussion, has not backed down on its anti-Zuma rhetoric. Just last week, with the announcement of Lesetja Kganyago as the new Governor of the Reserve Bank, NUMSA’s criticism that the “only people celebrating should be white monopoly capital” was the loudest.

It seems clear that NUMSA has simply gone too far, spoken too much, and exercised too much rhetoric to turn back now. Even if its leaders wanted to turn back – and there is no indication that they do – their members have voted to withdraw their support for the ANC, and to explore the creation of a new workers’ party at a special congress in December last year. One could imagine that some members are going to start getting a little frustrated, from claims that NUMSA was looking at the launch of this party by June this year, to the fact that at the moment, still nothing has happened.

This means that if NUMSA’s general secretary Irvin Jim, his deputy Karl Cloete and the union’s other leaders don’t have something to show for themselves soon, they could feel the heat from their own members.

It’s the risk you run with raising expectations. At some point you’re supposed to meet them.

So what is going to happen at this Central Executive Committee meeting when it does finally happen? And what will happen at the Central Committee?

It seems that no matter what, it’s impossible to contain this split. If the CEC meets, and hears out the ANC, and the ANC admits it was unable to stop the divide, then what? Do they meet and hold a vote immediately? They would be back where they were before May, about to vote to expel NUMSA.

If they don’t hold a vote, what then? Do they just swallow what NUMSA has said, and its rejection of the ANC? The point is, it is probably possible that COSATU could decide to allow NUMSA to effectively pull out of the political work of the federation. But it won’t be the only one.

And what then? From a political point of view, what would be the point of COSATU? While it could be apolitical, it wouldn’t really achieve anything by doing so. It would be better for those unions who do support the ANC to expel those that don’t, to keep COSATU political.

But all of that is probably academic anyway. Because at some point, COSATU has to hold its Central Committee. And when it does, surely the only discussion that will matter is that of internal unity. Nine of COSATU’s unions have been calling for a special congress for nearly a year now. One of the best reasons to delay that was expressed by ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, when he said that that congress wouldn’t solve anything, and putting everyone in the same room would simply see the entire federation explode. Surely this meeting would be exactly the same. It would become the special congress in all but name. With a couple of thousand delegates in the same room, with very different viewpoints on people like President Jacob Zuma, it would be impossible to manage it politically in such a way that the federation stays together.

As an aside, at the last Central Committee in 2011, when Zuma arrived in the main hall, you could hear a pin drop. It was the first and last time in this reporter’s memory that that has happened. It was also a clear sign that the vast majority of COSATU was really angry with him. At the time it seemed that was due to Zuma’s inaction against Julius Malema. Now it seems that much of COSATU does back him, and were he to speak at this gathering, there would be a very different reaction. There is a political master-class to be given by someone on how Number One has changed hearts in his favour so effectively.

Over the weekend COSATU general Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi tweeted that he was writing his political report for the CC and “writing a report has never been this challenging”. Vavi has always been an honest man. Which means while writing this report, he will know that surely he has to arrive at the conclusion that COSATU have no future. That the red button marked “Armageddon” has in fact already been pushed.

And that the missile that has flown just under the radar for so long is about to explode. DM

Photo: Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and President Jacob Zuma at the trade union federation’s 11th national congress at Gallagher Estate in Midrand on Monday, 17 September 2012. In the background is Cosatu’s deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA


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