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19 November 2017 23:41 (South Africa)
South Africa

Op-Ed: The trade union federation formerly known as Cosatu

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa
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It must now surely be official. With a whimper rather than a bang, Cosatu is an ex-trade union federation; it has shuffled off its mortal coil. It’s over. Now, all that’s left is the shouting, even if the struggling and noise-making will continue for some time. But not much more than that - shouting. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On Monday Cosatu was due to hold a Central Executive Committee meeting. The CEC is the body that sees all the leaders of the affiliate unions (unions get representation based on their membership numbers) and the provincial leaders, plus the unfortunately abbreviated National Office Bearers getting together in one room. It is the equivalent of the ANC’s National Executive Committee. And if the biggest decision taken by the NEC in the last decade has been the recall of Mbeki, the Cosatu equivalent of a plutonium bomb was the CEC’s decision to expel the National Union of Metalworkers of SA in November 2014.

NUMSA has several supporters within the CEC: seven other unions who back it (the Public and Allied Workers' Union of SA; the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA; Food and Allied Workers' Union; the SA State and Allied Workers' Union; the Communication Workers' Union; the SA Football Players' Union and the SA Commercial, Catering, and Allied Workers' Union), who voted against the expulsion, and who have been pushing for a Special Congress. On Sunday those unions said they would not attend the CEC meeting until NUMSA was allowed back. On Monday morning, in a move that could have been timed to keep the story going, Zwelinzima Vavi tweeted that he too would not be going to the CEC meeting, as he believed it was wrong for it to continue without seven unions. And then he stuck the knife in a bit, by saying he was going to a court case involving the Aurora miners and Khulubuse Zuma in solidarity with those workers.

It’s an old but effective trick, to refuse to come to an engagement, only to go to something else that is full of symbolism. Police unions in particular have used it, as they’re not allowed to go on strike - and sometimes the entire force of a city will pitch up at someone’s funeral. There can be no doubt that it is a political tactic.

And there can be no doubt that it is a political act, and a deliberate political act at that, to refuse to attend this CEC meeting. It sends several messages.

The first is: we will simply not back down on the demand to reinstate NUMSA. From a tactical point of view this is probably the right course. Should these unions go to CEC meetings now, they will be hopelessly outgunned, should any issue come to a vote. As persuasion is unlikely to change any minds of their opponents, they should just not pitch up at all.

The second message the non-attendance of Vavi sends is that he is in the NUMSA corner, and in the corner of a non-divided Cosatu. This is no surprise, of course, as Vavi has appeared to be in favour of NUMSA all the way through this. It does additionally send the message, though, that faced with the clear choice, Vavi will choose NUMSA over Cosatu, in a move that could have long-lasting effect on the future of South African politics.

The majority grouping within Cosatu leadership now has several options. They could have suspended the meeting, but that would have been a very large blink in a game being played for very high stakes. That would have indicated that the other seven unions are able to bring the business of Cosatu to a halt should they wish to. From a legal point of view, Cosatu President S’dumo Dlamini appears to be perfectly right to say that they will have a quorum, and thus the power to take decisions without these unions. He goes even further, saying that those decisions will actually be binding on all the affiliates of Cosatu, through the principle of democratic centralism (in other words, affiliates are all independent entities, but if they wish to belong to Cosatu, they agree to abide by decisions they disagree with, if those decisions are the wish of the majority of Cosatu members).

So, then, the meeting is underway, and everything is being done by the book. And by going this route, Dlamini sends the strong message that Cosatu can and will survive without these unions, AND without Vavi.

For Cosatu’s sake, he’d better be right. Because one of the problems that the seven unions and Vavi now have, is whether they will ever go back. To do so now would be a humiliating admission of defeat. Which means that, should Dlamini and co. really want them back, they have to give them a good reason to go back. And for the majority unions to allow NUMSA back would almost certainly be too much of an admission of defeat to even consider it.

So these unions will likely not go back. And Vavi has probably missed his last CEC meeting as a National Office Bearer.

If that is not the case, what scenario could possibly take place that would see them all united again? The ANC has already tried to intervene, and failed. President Jacob Zuma cannot get involved here, as he is seen to be part of the problem. The SACP has been so scathing of NUMSA, often through its leading light, Blade Nzimande, that it will never be seen as impartial. Or helpful. (Helen Zille is probably unlikely to offer her services as a mediator.)

This means, then, that is probably for the best for all and sundry to accept the fact that Cosatu is no more. No matter the de jure position, de facto, Cosatu is no longer, even with the new arrival, Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa, (Limusa) knocking at the door.

Often, because of the sometimes violent nature of union politics, we expect things to end with a bang. Cosatu, as we know it, could perhaps end in a whimper. Until the real bang of the war between two union federations starts.

For those involved in today's impasse, they will now need to start planning their lives as if the split has happened. For those unions that will be leaving, they will have to get properly organised, attempt to put their loose alliance on a tighter footing. They will have no choice but to organise a federation of their own fairly soon. Thankfully for them, NUMSA has deep pockets, and will probably take the lead here. That also means that that new federation is likely to start soliciting members in sectors where it is currently not organised.

It is here that the first conflicts with Cosatu unions would start. It wouldn’t just be two unions fighting it out for turf; it would actually be two unions fighting it out over politics, which will make these tensions between them worse.

For the unions remaining in Cosatu, they need to start making arrangements for life after the departure too. If the Limusa does go ahead, presumably the remnants of Cosatu too will start to work on unions for other sectors, ranging from Food and Allied Workers to football. Perhaps, behind the scenes, some of this is already underway.

What will follow will be a potentially dangerous and deadly situation nationwide, with union wars, extravagant wage-demands-as-marketing, crime and regular massive work stoppages as the competing federations fight for turf and against the employers. All of it will happen in an economy that is already hurting in times of low growth, budget tightening, infrastructure weakening, education and healthcare failure; in other words, this bad-politics-made-labour-force turmoil could not have come in the more unwelcome times. 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

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa

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