Cosatu’s leaders began undermining the patience of journalists and the intelligence of the South African public early last year when they tried their utmost to deny there was a rift amongst them. In fact, they blamed the media for talking up the divisions. Then, mid year, there was a full blow-up when it emerged in a Sunday newspaper that Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi had been accused of raping a junior staffer at the federation’s Johannesburg headquarters. The charges were subsequently withdrawn, but what ensued was an epic public fallout, with Cosatu trying to throw the book at Vavi, and Vavi fighting back with the might of Numsa behind him.
Since then there have been dramatic public exchanges, fraught central executive committee (CEC) meetings, a round of court battles and fiery speeches from Cosatu and Numsa leaders, attacking each other. Numsa held a special national congress in December where it was resolved that Cosatu’s alliance with the ANC should be broken and that the union should pursue the formation of a new workers’ party. In subsequent months, Numsa made clear its intention to convene a summit of all left leaning political organisations to press forward with its mission to create a United Front.
In addition, Numsa has also been running a recruitment drive in other sectors, agitating its sister unions within Cosatu by infringing on their territory. Numsa’s rejection of the alliance, together with its defiance of Cosatu’s principle of “one union, one industry”, has increased the determination of its opponents, led by Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini, to have the metalworkers’ union expelled.
Vavi, in the meantime, won a court battle to have his suspension from Cosatu overturned. He returned to Cosatu House but his enemies in the federation were also determined to reinstate the disciplinary charges against him in connection with his sexual misconduct.
For months, there have been raging battles over the demand by some unions for a special national congress. Dlamini refused, despite the affiliates meeting the constitutional requirements to have one called. So nothing has been sacred in this fight – everything could be gambled with, including the cornerstones of the federation.
So there was a massive build-up towards an Armageddon-type blow-up earlier this year.
It was then that the ANC realised that the implosion of Cosatu would probably have a negative impact on the elections in May and decided to intervene. A high-level ANC task team led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa managed to get the Cosatu CEC, on which all affiliate unions are represented, to agree to a ceasefire pending the outcome of its intervention process.
So all the fiery statements died down, everybody went to ground and the election passed without too much trouble from Cosatu and Numsa leaders. Vavi, who has been the most outspoken critic of the ANC government, particularly on issues of corruption and overconsumption, has gagged himself over the past few months. His most vocal, and frankly bizarre, statements have been over the dispute involving the cast members of the SABC soapie Generations.
In the meantime the protracted strike in the platinum mining sector came and went, the political dynamics in the country have changed with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) turning Parliament into a battlefield, and the growth rate has declined further, meaning more jobs are at risk.
Cosatu is no longer the voice of the workers they are paid to represent. For the past few months, they have been sitting ducks, waiting for the ANC to wave its magic wand and save them from themselves.
Last week, Cosatu held a special CEC to consider the ANC’s report on the situation in the federation. It said what everyone has known for two years. Cosatu is plagued by an almighty factional battle, its leaders are generally to blame for the state of play, Numsa’s enemies want them out, Numsa wants everyone except Vavi and the unions backing him out. The most important outcome of the ANC intervention is that there is no solution to the crisis.
So we are back to where we were a year ago.
The problem with Dlamini, Vavi, and the two other figureheads of the respective factions, National Union of Mineworkers general secretary Frans Baleni and his Numsa counterpart Irvin Jim, is that they genuinely believe that the rest of the country cares as much as they did a year ago. Dlamini, Baleni and their faction on one side, and Vavi, Jim and their faction on the other side, continue to run around in circles, play the media field, drum up their supporters in the mistaken belief that they will win the favour of their constituencies and the public at large.
What they seem not to realise is that while they were fighting and then hibernating, Cosatu’s role in the day-to-day life of the country has dipped significantly. If people want to know how matters affect working class people, the EFF will tell them before they have to ask. Cosatu was at one stage the most vocal opponent against e-tolls; the ANC in Gauteng has now taken that space.
Was Cosatu’s voice evident when Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene made it clear last week that the tax regime would be changed in four months? No. In previous years, Vavi would have been screaming blue murder about the impact on the working class and demanding that the high-fliers in government first be cut down to size. Cosatu did issue a statement in reaction to the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement more than 24 hours after it was delivered, by which time the news agenda had moved on.
When you listen to what exactly bogged down last week’s CEC, the full extent of the morass in Cosatu becomes evident. According to a media statement issued after the meeting, no decisions on any issue could be taken. “There was a frank, robust and difficult discussion on the ANC report, and the CEC decided not to take any decisions but to reconvene on 7 November 2014,” the statement said.
Among the issues deferred are Numsa’s presentation on why it should not be suspended or expelled, Dlamini’s response to the call for a special national congress (the ANC advised against this and he has dead against it from the start), the disciplinary process against Vavi and the staffer he had sex with, and whether or not Cosatu should go ahead with convening a central committee meeting in November. Central committees are the biggest gathering of Cosatu members in between national congresses.
So why was everything they were meant to discuss last week pushed forward to another meeting? Vavi as general secretary is responsible for drafting the agenda. According to insiders, the meeting was unable to go beyond the ANC report because of the phrasing of the agenda, which provided only for the report to be received, not discussed further. So for three days, at great waste of time and money, they fought to get past such inanities, while journalists camped outside waiting for the drama to play out.
By last Thursday, there was tension and hype about a vote to expel Numsa. Eventually the meeting adjourned, with both sides still mistakenly believing they have the upper hand. But the faction that wants Numsa out did not do their homework to check whether the Cosatu constitution allowed them to expel an affiliate. They backpedalled when they realised it did not.
Here are the problems now: Vavi still has to draft the agenda for the next meeting; what prevents the same fight happening again? And how will Numsa’s opponents get around the constitutional issue to vote them out?
Vavi is desperate that the 7 November CEC meeting should endorse his political report for the central committee. In it, he lays out all the problems in Cosatu and wants the delegates to have the final say on the factional battles. But the report in all likelihood will be vetoed by the CEC, because Vavi’s faction is outnumbered. This is presuming the CEC even gets around to discussing his report. Without the report being approved by the CEC, Vavi cannot legitimately present it to the central committee.
What, then, does the central committee discuss?
If Vavi has it his way in the 7 November meeting, he will probably try to get his report discussed before the Numsa issue comes up. If a vote goes ahead to expel Numsa, Vavi’s goose is cooked too. With Numsa out, he loses his main defenders on his disciplinary matter. His survival is integrally linked to the fate of Numsa.
Rumour has it that the ANC might step in to rescue Vavi and keep him in the fold to prevent him from being the political figurehead of the new Numsa-led movement. Vavi has previously refused to be baited by the ANC, but with everyone’s political survival in the balance and his own reservations about Numsa’s scorched earth approach, he might still decide otherwise.
If the 7 November CEC is able to take any decisions whatsoever, it will be the first time in over a year that Cosatu does anything of note. If Numsa gets expelled, it will be no big surprise, but they will go to court and fight it. At the same time they continue to plan for their workers’ party and are also amenable to forming a new “super federation” with independent federations and unions.
If the central committee does go ahead – with or without Numsa – it will still be bogged down by procedural issues and unlikely to make progress.
So what is the way out for Cosatu?
The ANC report stopped short of saying the obvious: the split needs to happen. There is no turning back to the glory days of Cosatu. There is also no quick fix. A simple purge will not work.
With every passing day, Cosatu is less of the mighty organisation for good it once was. The Cosatu of today is disconnected from its membership, from its core functions and from its role in society. That process of alienation is a finite one and South African workers’ patience is not unlimited. Workers’ representation will never be cast in stone – the vacuum created by the distant, disengaged and disinterested leaders will always be filled by a fresh influx of the people ready and willing to do the job – just ask NUM and the platinum sector.
The rupture needs to happen and both sides need to rebuild from the bottom up; it is the only feasible way forward. It will take real, mature leadership from Cosatu’s collective leaders to find an amenable way to go their separate ways. But their conduct so far suggests that that is a virtual impossibility.
After all these years, neither side wants to surrender first, and give up the enormous capital – political, social and financial – that Cosatu holds. And yes, we have purposely omitted the workers from the list. DM
Photo: Left to right: Bheki Ntshalinthali ( COSATU Deputy General Secretary), Zwelenzima Vavi (COSATU Secretary General), Jacob Zuma (South Africa’s President), Sidumo Dlamini (COSATU President), President Jacob Zuma at the first day of COSATU’s 11th National Congress, the Gallagher Estate in Midrand. (Jordi Matas)
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