President Jacob Zuma, South African Communist Party (SACP) general secretary Blade Nzimande and Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini will all speak at the opening of Cosatu’s 12th national congress in Midrand on Monday. For them, this congress will be a triumph over their detractors. Cosatu now needs to redefine itself in a shifting political and social landscape where nouveau radicalism and hashtag protests are on trend. But the Vavi-Numsa bashing and preoccupation with ANC succession could defocus Cosatu from what its core business should be. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
On the night metalworkers’ union Numsa was expelled by the Cosatu central executive committee in November last year, some journalists waiting outside Cosatu House received information that a room had been booked at a nearby hotel for a celebration party. But the debate over Numsa’s expulsion took longer than expected, with the vote only taking place in the early hours of the next morning. We will never know for sure whether those who were responsible for Numsa’s purge were really callous enough to plan a celebration for booting out 340,000 workers from the federation.
This week’s Cosatu national congress will in some ways constitute the Zwelinzima Vavi-Numsa purge after-party. The internal battles over the numerous allegations against the former general secretary and the radical agenda of the metalworkers’ union had consumed Cosatu since its last congress. There has not been much the federation has chalked up in that period in terms of its campaigns and representation of workers’ struggles.
Now that Vavi and Numsa have announced that they will not be appealing their dismissal from Cosatu, it seems that era has passed. It does not mean however that Cosatu will return to its heyday of being one of the most prominent voices in the national discourse and having real influence in the ANC.
The fact is that in the time Cosatu has been besieged by its internal problems, its space in society has been taken up. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) emerged as a serious player in the labour sector and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) was formed, fashioning itself as the voice of the poor. The EFF’s ability to gain over a 1.1 million votes in the 2014 elections, nine months after it was formed, was a clear indication that discontent with traditional politics is growing.
Then this year, a new phenomenon of radical student activism emerged, breaking the mould of labour and civic protests. The #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch and #FeesMustFall protests eschewed political involvement and had clear, attainable goals. The success of these campaigns was due to the students taking an uncompromising stance and gaining mass public support.
As Cosatu returns from its own battlefield, it has to contend with this redefined space. A big focus at this week’s congress will be the support role the federation plays in the ANC’s 2016 local government election campaign. But with reduced membership figures, a growing social distance between the leadership and the shop floor, diminishing resources and a compromised public image, Cosatu might find it quite difficult to regain the space it surrendered.
The ANC and SACP will however be pleased that Cosatu minus Vavi and Numsa will be less critical and more cooperative on the campaign trail. The question is whether Cosatu can still deliver its members as voters for the ANC.
Cosatu has been quite pleased that Numsa’s effort to chart a new path, which includes the formation of a workers’ party, has been slowed down by organisational problems and foot-dragging by its civil society and union partners. While Numsa’s members resolved at a special national congress in December 2013 to withdraw support for the ANC, it has been struggling to get other Cosatu unions to follow suit.
This does not mean, however, that all Cosatu members remain loyal to the ANC. It means that the leadership of affiliate unions are worried about jumping the gun without the mandate of their members.
This is why the messages that Zuma, Nzimande and Dlamini deliver to the congress on Monday need to be targeted. They need to provide political direction to a battle-weary and neglected constituency. But there will be a big temptation to be triumphalist over their detractors and celebrate the fact that the majority of Cosatu unions and members remained in the fold, despite Vavi and Numsa’s best efforts to take a huge chunk with them. It will take a lot of political maturity not to rub Vavi and Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim’s noses in the fact that, while they were big players in the last elective congress in 2012, they are now out in the cold.
Workers will be looking to find out whether the ANC and SACP are still able to look after their interests. The past few years has shown this not to be the case, although some sections of the ANC still claim to have a worker bias and the SACP still claims to be the vanguard of the working class. The question is whether the 2,500 delegates at this week’s congress will be able to properly assess their political representation and take resolutions that ratchet up the pressure on the alliance to take workers more seriously.
Cosatu’s leaders have admitted in the reports being presented at the congress that the alliance is weak and dysfunctional. However they remain fiercely loyal to the ANC and have already pledged wholehearted support for the ruling party in next year’s elections.
While the congress will have to elect new leaders in Cosatu’s top six positions, there is unlikely to be too much of a shake up. When it comes to leadership elections, the preoccupation is with succession in the ANC.
Dlamini told Daily Maverick in an interview that in 2012, Cosatu had decided it wanted Kgalema Motlanthe to stay on as ANC deputy president but they were unable to meet him to convince him not to contest Zuma for the presidency. As a result, they “ended up” with Cyril Ramaphosa as deputy president. This time Cosatu appears to be throwing their lot with Ramaphosa, wanting to follow the previous tradition of the ANC deputy president becoming president.
Cosatu’s leaders and some unions are however weary about pronouncing themselves on ANC leadership preferences too early, before processes have formally begun in the ruling party. The danger of holding back is that the opposition faction in the ANC, the group formerly known as the “premier league”, has been gaining traction and dominating leadership elections in the ANC Youth League, ANC Women’s League and in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial conference. That faction is rallying behind African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to be the next president.
There might be a temptation for Cosatu to be the first structure in the alliance to openly support Ramaphosa for president. If it does so, Cosatu might immerse itself into yet another debilitating battle that has nothing to do with its core function and constituency. While it does need to assert its influence in the alliance, Cosatu needs to regain its relevance as the voice of the workers and the key campaigner for working class issues.
This week’s congress will either serve as Cosatu’s comeback moment or plunge into further irrelevance. It could be the most decisive congress in Cosatu’s 30-year existence, or an exercise of going through the motions for an organisation past its sell-by date.
The biggest let-down for South Africa’s workers will be if this week is all about the victors in Cosatu’s most bruising battle thumbing their noses at those they purged and pledging to lie prostrate before their political masters in the ANC and SACP for another three years. DM
Photo: Left to right: Zwelenzima Vavi (then COSATU Secretary General), Jacob Zuma (South Africa’s President) and S’dumo Dlamini (COSATU President) during the first day of COSATU’s 11th National Congress, at the Gallagher Estate in Midrand. 17 September 2012. (Photo: Jordi Matas)