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21 August 2017 23:35 (South Africa)
South Africa

Op-Ed: Cosatu, Cosatu, why hast thou forsaken us?

  • 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
Photo: Cosatu President S'dumo Dlamini (centre) and General Secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali. (Greg Nicolson)

If there is one thing upon which most of our political actors will agree, it is this: our politics moves fast. Things happen very quickly. Even if it looks like those in charge are going to remain in charge (like, foreeeever), things are happening beneath the surface. Institutions change, organisations that look rock solid start to slip, other organisations start to come up and challenge. Nowhere can this be more obvious than in the sad sight of Cosatu just giving up the fight against corruption, and the perceived role of the Gupta family. It is a tragedy. For workers, for South Africa, for all of us. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

In 2010, just five-and-a-half short years ago, Zwelinzima Vavi was the general secretary of Cosatu. The press conferences he held, representing the Central Executive Committee of the federation, were always electric. Up the dingy, dirty, dangerous lift of the old Cosatu House one went, younger reporters jumping at each clang along the way. Into an eating area always immersed in the most interesting meaty smells, and through to the press briefing area. There, around a series of tables arranged in an irritating rectangle, Vavi would hold court. Supported by the thoroughly decent Patrick Craven, he did not need any questions to make news. It was always in the statement.

And he did not hold back. Almost always, there was a mention of the phrase he coined, “Political hyenas”. At one point, things got so hectic, three members of the ANC’s National Working Committee considered suing him for defamation (for the record, those three were Tony “Three sips Yengeni, Siphiwe Nyanda, and a young man who preferred to be known as Young Lion rather than a hyena). At the time, the ANC even supported them. This attitude of Vavi’s, and by implication of Cosatu’s, dominated the tone of the alliance. The SACP was the silent partner in this.

Consider the tone of this statement, delivered in 2010, against the backdrop of an approaching football World Cup (back when Danny Jordaan was happy to holiday in New York):

We’re headed for a predator state where a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas are increasingly using the state to get rich. Just like the “hyena and her daughters” eat first in nature, the “chief of state’s family eats first” in this predator state. We have to intervene now to prevent South Africa from becoming a state where corruption is the norm and no business can be done with government without first paying a corrupt gatekeeper."

There is simply no way not to see that as an aggressive statement, aimed at changing the behaviour of the ANC towards corruption. Note, in particular, the subtext against Zuma. That reference to the “chief of state’s family” is something that we can all understand.

Now, contrast that with the events of last week. The ANC decided to can its investigation into whether or not the state had been captured by the Gupta family. This is a case that has seen the Deputy Minister of Finance claiming, on official stationary and in video, that they offered him the job of finance minister, subject to certain conditions. But in a decision more blatant than anything Cosatu of Vavi had to contend with, the ANC’s National Executive Committee just stopped the investigation.

The response of Cosatu President S’dumo Dlamini was this, “We should support the decision of the ANC. It has concluded the matter. But we should be vigilant of any form of capturing of the state.”

It is a complete reversal, a rolling over, a betrayal of Cosatu’s promise to protect workers.

There are some very strange dynamics at play here. Seven weeks ago workers at ANN7 displayed their unhappiness at the presence of ANC Youth League President Collen Maine. He claimed to be there to support them, after the main banks refused to do business with Oakbay Investments. But, when he arrived, he was booed, with workers chanting in the background that “Maine must go”. (If you haven’t seen the video, it’s worth the watching). Then ANN7 decided to charge those workers with misconduct. When the Communication Workers Union representative arrived at their Midrand studios, they was barred from entering. Dlamini himself had to intervene, to make sure these workers were represented.

If there is any doubt as to the low esteem in which Cosatu holds the Guptas as employers, know this: at its conference last year, ANN7 was judged the country’s worst employer. It would make sense, then, in the name of consistency, that Cosatu would be first in line to make sure that these terrible employers are dealt with, that any kind of pressure that can be brought to bear is indeed brought to bear. Instead, we have Cosatu simply supporting them. Simply saying that the process of the ANC to investigate whether these exploiters of workers is fine, because it didn’t find anything.

It’s hard to think of a reason of why this could be the case. Could it be that the Communication Workers Union is wrong to represent these workers? Surely not. Could it be about protecting Maine? Definitely not. So what is it? It’s hard not to conclude that Cosatu, or those who currently lead it, think they must support Number One at all times and that supporting Guptas equals defending Zuma. The person whose family is the “chiefs of state’s family” to use Cosatu’s previous phrase from 2010.

It is even harder to make any kind of conclusion in a sentence that does not use the words like “captured”, or “bought”.

This is surely about much more than Vavi, and his departure from Cosatu. And it’s about much more than the personality of Dlamini as well. It must surely reflect a huge change within the leadership of the federation. The people who now belong, who now dominate, are different from the people who were in that position in 2010.

The most obvious change has been the expulsion of Numsa. As the biggest private sector union, once they were gone, everything changed. The balance shifted overwhelmingly in favour of the unions in the public sector. And their bread is buttered on the side of warm relations with the government sector. In other words, the ANC, and the people who happen to be running it at the moment.

This means that when one now goes to the New Cosatu House, through the strangely state-of-the-art security system, up the silent shiny silver lift, and into the biggest, bestest meeting room known to humankind, one is going to get a very different message.

It is a sadness that this has happened. We need Cosatu, all of us. It was the one organisation that seemed capable of protecting us from the corruption of some in the ANC. It is falling by the wayside. The SACP may fill some of that vacuum. But it is probably unable to do it on its own.

This is a fundamental shift in our politics. It could still shift back. But for the moment, it doesn’t look likely. DM

Photo: Cosatu President S'dumo Dlamini (centre) and General Secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali. (Greg Nicolson).

  • 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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