Numsa knows it, Cosatu knows it, the South Gauteng High Court judge who was dragged into the matter knows it. It is the end of the road for Cosatu in its current form. On Friday, the 29-year-old worker federation meets to push the self-destruct button. It will be another massive battle as metalworkers’ union Numsa mounts one last attempt to avoid expulsion from Cosatu. But barring a miracle, this is where Cosatu parts ways with its biggest affiliate. It was a story for the ages – how worker power faced off against the Apartheid regime and rode the wave to democracy. Then things fell apart. And it did so spectacularly. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
It was May Day 1986. South Africa was in political turmoil and mass rebellion could be felt everywhere. Cosatu had been established a few months earlier at a meeting at the University of Natal in Durban. A rising leader in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at the time by the name of Cyril Ramaphosa had acted as convenor at the launch. Elijah Barayi had been elected as the first president and Jay Naidoo as first general secretary of Cosatu.
1 May 1986 was the day to show the muscle of the workers of South Africa and the new federation seized the moment. Under the Apartheid regime, May Day was not recognised as a paid holiday. Cosatu decided it should be, and called for a stay away. More than 1.5 million workers heeded the call and brought South Africa to a standstill. Even though the Apartheid state had banned mass gatherings, rallies were held across the country. PW Botha’s regime knew then that they were dealing with a powerful new force.
Numsa was formed the year after, when six metalworkers’ unions within Cosatu and one independent merged to form the second biggest affiliate. Also in 1987, the NUM led the largest strike in South African history, when an estimated 3.5 million mineworkers stopped production over low pay, degrading tasks and oppressive conditions.
In May 1988, Cosatu held a special congress with over 1,300 delegates and attended by leaders of the United Democratic Front, church and civil society organisations. The congress was called to assess the difficult conditions of the time with activists banned and being detained. At the special congress, they debated a proposal to form a “united front” (yes, Irvin Jim isn’t terribly original with his idea) but there were too many disparate views. On 6 June 1988, between 2.5 million and 3 million people observed a call to stay at home to oppose bannings, restrictions and oppressive measures by the Apartheid state.
That was the power of Cosatu in the early years.
In democratic South Africa, it played different roles. As the organisation with the biggest membership in the tripartite alliance, it had the biggest reach and voting muscle. Cosatu’s strength was its proximity to power and its size. This gave it leverage where it mattered, in collective bargaining and against business.
There were years of extreme turbulence with Cosatu going to war over government’s Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy and later the Aids treatment policy. Cosatu with Zwelinzima Vavi as general secretary took on a major activist role in society.
The leadership battle between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma had a huge impact on the dynamics within Cosatu. Vavi was firmly behind Zuma because of the cold shoulder the left had been given by Mbeki. Former Cosatu president Willie Madisha, however, backed Mbeki. Vavi managed to rally the federation behind Zuma in his legal battles and later in the ANC leadership race at Polokwane. Madisha found himself in a knot of trouble and was booted out.
And thus began the partnership between Vavi as general secretary and S’dumo Dlamini as president. It was a match made in heaven at first, as they were both ardent Zuma supporters. Cosatu’s biggest affiliate, the NUM, was still the solid, dominant voice and most other unions followed suit. But a man from the Eastern Cape, Irvin Jim, was becoming more prominent on the political scene and eventually rose to become general secretary of Numsa. He fitted easily into the Zuma coalition, which included the brain behind it, Blade Nzimande, the South African Communist Party (SACP) general secretary.
But shortly after Zuma became president, the coalition started unravelling. Vavi continued to be outspoken about wastage and crass materialism, infuriating those who went to government and splashed out on the trappings of high office. His criticism of the Zuma government also started irritating his former friends and allies. The ANC thought they could rein him in through Dlamini, but all this did was introduce friction between the two. Jim, in the meantime, was growing his union and also becoming highly critical of government’s economic failures.
Then came 2012.
The strikes on the platinum mines, which ended in disaster at Marikana and the erosion of the NUM. But this is also the year the SACP, Cosatu and ANC were holding elective conferences. By this time, relations all round had deteriorated. Nzimande maintained control of the SACP, even though he was criticised for paralysing the party and turning into a cheerleading squad for Zuma. In the ANC, a perceived leadership battle fizzled out due to the Kgalema Motlanthe’s reluctance to openly stand against Zuma, whose camp made a clean sweep at the Manguang conference.
The only real battle happened at the Cosatu congress. NUM and Numsa were in a head-on fight for dominance, Dlamini and Vavi were leading respective factions and fighting to keep their positions, and the congress was completely bogged down and unable to take decisions on major issues. In order to resolve the stalemate, it was decided that neither Dlamini nor Vavi would face contestation for their positions and were re-elected.
This would turn out to be a huge mistake. Both continued to wage a war within the federation with camps congregating around them. Vavi’s camp led by Numsa has accused the ANC and SACP of wanting to silence and get rid of him in order to stifle Cosatu’s voice and powers.
In 2013, Vavi made the fatal mistake of having a sexual encounter with a Cosatu staff member, which led to him being suspended and facing a range of disciplinary charges, including that of financial impropriety. Numsa went to war on his behalf, taking Cosatu to court and also demanding a special national congress to sort out the troubles in the federation.
By this time it had become clear that the Cosatu of old was long gone and what was left was a group of bickering individuals who were getting progressively disconnected from the mass membership of the federation. Cosatu has become disengaged from most worker and societal issues as it has tried to manage its internal turbulence. It lost its leverage and bargaining power. Workplace battles became far removed from the leadership. Societal struggles are these days led from community level, with no relationship to the organisation that for a long time was the voice of the poor and working class.
Could the situation have been rescued along the way? Perhaps. But the battles for power and the political agendas informing them prevented this from happening. Dlamini and his faction have refused to comply with a request by nine affiliates to convene the special congress as it is likely that the entire leadership might come under attack.
Numsa’s resolutions at their own special congress in December to, among other things, break off support for the ANC form a new workers’ party, have made their opponents determined to expel them from Cosatu.
After a range of court battles and numerous fraught central executive committee (CEC) meetings, the day of reckoning has finally arrived. On Thursday, the South Gauteng High Court postponed an application by Numsa to interdict Cosatu from acting against it. This gave Cosatu the go ahead to continue with a special CEC where it plans to vote to expel Numsa. Numsa and its allies are outnumbered in the CEC and will lose any issue being voted on. Cosatu assured the court that it would give Numsa the opportunity to defend itself and answer the charges it faces.
Friday’s CEC will expose how fractured one of the liberation movement’s strongest formations has become. Cosatu must break in order to release its disparate components and leaders from an untenable situation. Thus the 29-year-old federation will begin to eat itself by voting to expel its biggest union.
In doing so, it will break an organisation formed under the most oppressive conditions for workers and confronted the might of the Apartheid state. It took conditions of freedom and access to the highest echelons of power for South Africa’s biggest worker organisation to fall to its knees.
Numsa will not go quietly. It will fight its expulsion and to keep a hold on Cosatu. Vavi will fall next as the disciplinary process against him will resume, this time without the Numsa’s protection. The eight other unions that have backed him and the call for a special congress will be on shaky ground in the federation. The remaining unions within Cosatu might fracture themselves, with some members tempted to follow Numsa as it charts a new path.
Cosatu will begin its 30th year of existence as a very different animal from where it began. Its voice is weak, its organisational ability is minimal, it has lost the confidence of its members and society and its ability to represent the poor and working class is severely compromised.
A new labour organisation and political front is now in the offing, which will go head-to-head with the ANC and what’s left of Cosatu. It is likely to cause more turbulence in a country in desperate need of political and economic stability.
It has been a long time coming but the day of reckoning has finally arrived. A group of people, former friends and comrades, will meet for the last time as the composite Congress of South African Trade Unions that was formed in a university sports hall a lifetime ago.
Now a new history begins. DM
Photo: Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is seen with the trade union federation’s president Sidumo Dlamini (R) at a news conference in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 29 May 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA