South Africa

Op-Ed: As Craven leaves, Cosatu loses another giant

By Stephen Grootes 2 April 2015

So often in politics we subscribe to what historians used to call the ‘big man’ theory. We focus on the newsmakers, the decision makers, the symbols of the various parties. You could examine the national predilection for blaming everything – including bad April Fool’s Day jokes – on President Jacob Zuma, as proof of this. But often the real story is hidden in the shadow of the ‘big’ person that is being publicly discussed. The resignation of Patrick Craven as national spokesperson of Cosatu is just such an example. It shows exactly how much has changed in just one week, as part of the fallout from the break-up of Cosatu. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Patrick Craven is one of the few fundamentally decent people in our politics. Always available, always ready to chat, and always honest, it’s easy to understand why so many in the media are going to be upset at his resignation. The fact that someone who could easily claim to have no blood tie to the struggle of workers has remained so loyal to their cause for so long is proof of his decency. It’s been one of the oddities of Cosatu that it has had him as its spokesperson for so long. 

But he has been part of the furniture for so long that many people around the country wouldn’t even need to have his position spelled out – his brand is now intimately associated with Cosatu’s.

Some made the mistake of thinking that his fundamental niceness meant Craven would be weak in a debate. They were wrong. In a debate, Craven is fierce, brave, and strong. Once, I chaired a debate between him and a remuneration specialist. It was a hall full of people straight out of Wall Street – the kind of people who really move the world and its money around. All of them were there for a conference on executive remuneration. Their chosen champion went first, detailing why people with certain skills brought a certain value to a firm, and thus should be paid well. It was the usual bank-speak: what happens if they leave a company, why they have the right to be paid millions.

Craven wasn’t flustered at all. Before he even went for the obvious point about inequality in our country, he pointed out that Eskom’s then-CEO had had a pay-rise, and yet his company couldn’t keep the lights on. It was the unanswerable point: remuneration is no predictor of future success.

It was the kind of answer that his moneyed-class audience immediately understood, and couldn’t oppose.

I once wrote a piece full of my usual fulminating about why capitalism was good and why Cosastu was killing jobs. The next time I spoke to Craven, he had plenty to say before he would let me ask him a question about the pressing issues I was interested in.

On issues like media freedom, in front of stages containing ANC heavyweights, he has had exactly the same approach. Sometimes Cosatu’s media profile on issues around e-tolls, the Protection of State Information Bill and issues of general freedom, has been led almost entirely by Craven. Particularly during Cosatu’s current travails, where leaders couldn’t really appear in public for various reasons, Craven has led the charge. Radio interviews, statements, television; sometimes by virtue of Cosatu taking part in these debates, the debates themselves were changed.

At what history will now probably record as Cosatu’s final conference in 2012, Craven was given an award. The entire hall stood up. Even journalists, who famously stand up for nobody, rose to their feet. When he finally came back up the stairs to the press area, he had a massive smile on his face. It was the kind of moment that meant something to everyone in the room. And everyone agreed; Craven and his example are the kind of ideal Cosatu itself sought to emulate.

The last few years must have been very tough for him. Caught between the various camps, perhaps even pushed this way and that, all the time not being sure how things were going to play out. Through all of it, there was no hint of his inner turmoil, no off the record briefings (that have come to light, anyway), no use of his position to push things in a particular direction. Those of us who tried to get a hint of what was going on (and I really did try) would be met with a gentle “You’ll have to wait, I’m afraid.” To put in perspective how difficult this must have been, remember that he had been working for Zwelinzima Vavi as general secretary for years. And considering his position, it would have been a very close working relationship.

But those who know Craven, who know he’s never been in it for himself, would not have been surprised that he resigned. As a point of principle, he was never going to side with those who he felt did not have the best interests of workers at heart. From a political point of view, he was also always going to move to the Left, to go to the organisation he thought would push for more radical change to improve the lot of workers. And considering his relationship with Vavi, he was probably always going to follow him. And those within NUMSA probably had few doubts, considering one of that union’s legal officers is named Norma Craven.

The point of all of this is that Craven is just one of the many casualties of this break-up. NUMSA, and the new federation, will surely find a place for him. In fact, even if politics wasn’t the point of it, they would be stupid to not offer him a position immediately, considering the brand and legitimacy he has. Considering much of the battle that is coming will be fought within the public sphere, he will be an invaluable asset.

But many others within Cosatu are now going to be considering their futures. They will have a lower public profile, perhaps be less confident. Many will be younger, and thus not have the experience of life, politics and unions that Craven has. Others, of course, may be less resolute in their views, and feel, quite reasonably, that they are actually doing their bit for workers by staying on in Cosatu. Just the conversations they’ll be having in their dining room, just off the main boardroom that was the site of Monday’s coup, will be damaging for Cosatu. The resolve, the sense of mission, the tradition and the history that made Cosatu unique is gone.

No matter what happens now, that will never be replaced. It’s like a china plate after a smash, or a marriage after an affair. It cannot just be put back together again; it’s never quite the same.

Just like Cosatu without Patrick Craven. DM

Photo: Patrick Craven (Daily Maverick)


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