Cosatu ended a four-day congress on Thursday with not much clarity on its future than at the start of the week. Its top set of leaders was re-elected, with only one new face filing the vacancy that was created when Zwelinzima Vavi was dismissed. There was some hard talk to drill home the message Cosatu did not want Vavi or metalworkers union Numsa back in the fold, but the voting figures told another story. Cosatu continued to drum out the same old rhetoric and aired the same grievances. Meanwhile the ground continues to shift and Cosatu continues to be left behind. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
There was a time when South Africa paid attention to everything Cosatu had to say. With over two million members, the federation was the single biggest organisation in the country. With numerical muscle, organisational power and political influence, it was a significant voice in the national discourse.
As Cosatu’s 12th national congress stuttered to a close on Thursday, it could hardly hold the attention of the delegates in attendance, let alone that of the nation. Arguments ensued about whether the congress should deal with the organisational report and amendments to Cosatu’s constitution or whether these should be deferred to the central executive committee (CEC). The CEC is made up of leaders of affiliate unions and Cosatu’s provincial structures. The question is, if the 2,500 delegates attending the congress could not get around to discussing the state of the federation and the rules governing how Cosatu operates, what were they talking about?
When you consider how much time was spent on fights about credentials, what should and should not be voted on, what they should and should not discuss and whether or not they should launch into the ANC’s succession debate, it is hardly surprising that there was hardly any time to examine the state of the federation and the constitutional amendments. After four torturous days, the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) even proposed that another special congress be held to discuss outstanding matters. After two jamborees this year, four months apart from each other, it is doubtful that many people would be able to put themselves through another Cosatu congress.
After three years of commotion since the last congress, a large part of which was taken up with fights involving expelled metalworkers’ union Numsa, investigations into the former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, court battles and interventions by the ANC and former leaders, this congress meant to signal Cosatu finally turning the corner. After the Numsa and Vavi purge and the failed fight-back at the special national congress in July, Cosatu’s leaders hoped delegates would be marching in step this week.
This was hardly the case.
It was difficult to find agreement on anything, even confirmation of the CEC decisions on Numsa and Vavi. Both Numsa and Vavi announced before the congress that they would not be appealing their removals. Considering their allies are now in the minority, it should have been merely a rubber stamp for the congress to confirm their expulsions.
But as with most issues during the congress, the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) put up a rigorous fight, wanting Numsa’s expulsion to be overturned. They also wanted the congress to act with caution on Vavi’s dismissal, arguing that the underlying reasons should be discussed. Both decisions had to go to a vote, and while the results were predictable, the voting numbers were rather surprising.
Although there was close to 2,500 voting delegates at the congress, only 904 voted to confirm Numsa’s expulsion. Sixty-seven voted against it. This means most of the delegates chose to leave the hall during the vote. Similarly with the vote on Vavi, 1,183 voted to approve his dismissal and 87 voted against it.
This should make Cosatu’s leaders a little worried as it would seem that most of the congress delegates were not so enthused to shut the door firmly behind Vavi and Numsa. The National Union of Mineworkers in fact argued that Numsa’s expulsion should not be permanent as they should be allowed to return to Cosatu if they rescinded the decision to extend their scope and poach members from other unions. While some of the delegates were singing derogatory and funeral songs about Vavi, others were holding up signs saying they still supported him and wanted him back.
But Vavi’s connection to Cosatu is now permanently severed. The congress re-elected Cosatu’s national office bearers, with former deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali being elected to fill Vavi’s old position. Former North West Cosatu secretary, Solly Phetoe, is the new deputy general secretary after he beat Oscar Phaka from nursing union Denosa by 1,679 votes to 671.
The five national officer bearers, including Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini, were elected unopposed into their positions as way to stabilise the federation. But with all the protracted debates this week, it remains to be seen how long they can keep the lid on internal battles before it explodes into the open again.
Dlamini and his team will try to keep Cosatu as a cohesive force, particularly to rally behind the ANC in next year’s local government elections. And in order to exert influence on the ANC’s next national conference in 2017, especially regarding leadership elections, Cosatu will have to try to prevent further fragmentation from its ranks.
But the biggest challenge remains Cosatu’s relevance. At the congress, the federation’s leaders and delegates raised the same issues they have complained about in recent years – being undercut in the alliance, sections of the National Development Plan they are unhappy with, labour brokers, e-tolls and corruption. They use the same language to voice their grievances and use the threat of strike action if things do not go their way.
While Cosatu remains the organisation with the most members in the country, this is not matched in terms of the weight of its voice and relevance in national discourse. Cosatu’s organisational power is being replaced by popular rebellion and uprisings. This is evident in community protest action, which Cosatu has no role in, and most notably the #FeesMustFall movement. The Economic Freedom Fighters is also muscling Cosatu out as the voice of the poor and working class.
Of course Cosatu did not really get around to talking about such issues that have a direct bearing on the role and image of the federation in society. After four days of debate and bickering, Cosatu continues hurtling though space, talking the talk of yesteryear and trying to find resonance in contemporary discourse. It missed the opportunity to infuse fresh blood and new ideas into its leadership, choosing instead to keep the dominant faction secure.
Nobody who attended Cosatu’s 12th national congress will be completely satisfied with the outcome. Instead of returning Cosatu to its dominant place in society, the congress exposed that the federation remains a shadow of its former self. For the 1.9 million members that Cosatu represents, that is a tragedy they have to contend with for the next three years. DM
Photo: Cosatu President S’dumo Dlamini. (Greg Nicolson)