South Africa

Politics, South Africa

Vavi & Co: New federation Saftu launches, now the work begins

Vavi & Co: New federation Saftu launches, now the work begins

When Zwelinzima Vavi and Numsa were expelled from Cosatu, it split the voice of the working class. This weekend, launching the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), the exiles said workers have finally found a new home. By GREG NICOLSON.

It seemed fitting that Jay Naidoo addressed the launching congress. Speaking to almost 1,400 voting delegates from 24 unions at the Birchwood Hotel in Boksburg, the founding Cosatu general secretary recalled forming what is now the country’s largest trade union federation. They had no money, no bank accounts, no employees and were under pressure from the apartheid police. Unite, he said, and workers can have the power to take the country forward.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) has been on the cards since Cosatu expelled its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa) in 2014 and its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi the following year. After years of consultations, it now has a logo, a constitution, a name, and elected leaders who have promised to galvanise workers in the fight for better pay and conditions as they struggle for socialism.

It sounds a lot like Cosatu and many of the unions affiliated to Saftu were formed after factional battles in Cosatu-affiliated organisations. Cosatu’s most prominent general secretaries attended the launch – Naidoo, Mbhazima Shilowa, and Vavi. The latter said Cosatu’s relationship with the ANC and business has destroyed its ability to lead workers. Its unions “will die naturally, one by one”.

“Cosatu is part of the ruling elites in our society. It is benefiting from the patronage network that is dispensed by the various factions of the ANC,” said Vavi, who was elected Saftu General Secretary on Sunday. As Cosatu unions lobby for the next ANC leader and fight amongst themselves, Vavi said Saftu will prioritise its members and the poor. “While they are screaming at each other and threatening each other, we will not mind about who is getting dismissed by who. We are doing what trade unions should do and that is what’s going to be different between us and those clowns.”

Saftu defines itself as Marxist-Leninist and Pan-African in outlook, independent from political parties “but not apolitical”. It will avoid the traps of being aligned with the ANC, but after debate over the three-day congress it still has to establish how directly it wants to influence politics. Some delegates supported Numsa’s plan to establish a workers’ party.

“There is no decision coming from this conference to establish a workers’ party,” said Vavi on Sunday. “There is a decision by this congress to engage with the question of political power and the working class through the political and ideological commission. We don’t know what will be the result of that discussion.”

In his closing address, newly-elected Saftu President Mac Chavalala, a Numsa shop steward and Eskom employee, said: “There’s no way that capitalism and neoliberalism can be replaced under the ANC government.” He added: “2019 is around the corner and we have resolved at this congress that the working class must find itself a political home. It is very important that as a class, and as we work towards 2019, we make sure that we take members of our communities with us towards 2019. No vote shall be wasted.” Deputy General Secretary Phakedi Moleko, from the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) said Saftu wouldn’t entertain close relations with a political party, but it’s unlikely come 2019 it will tell workers to vote with their hearts.

Despite the congress being open, nominees for Saftu’s six leadership positions were agreed to behind closed doors and uncontested with delegates agreeing it’s better to agree to appoint the inaugural office bearers rather than hold potentially-divisive elections. Leaders come from Numsa, Fawu, the SA Liberated Public Sector Workers Union (Salipswu), South African Policing Union (Sapu), and the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (Nupsaw). Saftu’s 24 unions represent around 700,000 members, with the bulk coming from Numsa. Another 16 unions interested in the federation attended the congress.

“All unions of the federation are equal founding members of the federation,” said Vavi, addressing concerns during the congress of Numsa’s dominance. The general secretary honoured Numsa for “being the catalyst in this long journey we have travelled” but denied he would show the union any favouritism. “Contrary to me treating them with kid gloves we’ve had lots of rough discussions and fights privately.” The congress declaration said larger unions should help smaller unions with support.

Saftu’s first target will be a recruitment drive focusing on the 76 percent of the workforce which is not unionised as well as members of Cosatu affiliates “because they are considered as unorganised and trapped”, said the declaration. That’s been a target for most trade unions and it’s unclear how Saftu affiliates will fare better, but the federation has promised to be worker-centred while also tapping into the informal sector and the unemployed in its campaigns.

“Our struggle is to end class exploitation, and to dismantle colonial and apartheid capitalism and land dispossession, through a programme to reclaim land and for a socialist-orientated society,” the congress resolved. Saftu plans to launch campaigns against limits on the right to strike, against farm evictions and Eskom’s planned closure of five power stations. It says it will “do everything in our power” to challenge the state and what Saftu calls “sweetheart unions’” alleged refusal to allow workers to join new trade unions.

As it begins its work, the new federation will have to balance internal issues among affiliates. A number of unions operate in the same sectors and Saftu has already warned against unions poaching members from each other, one of the issues that led to Numsa’s dismissal from Cosatu. “No union should further expand its scope. We must encourage mergers where it makes the union more effective and makes organisational sense, but in the meantime unions in the same sector should co-operate,” affiliates resolved.

“It is time to work now for the working class in South Africa and do our part for the world working class,” said Chavalala. “Sing to everyone you meet that there is hope once more for the downtrodden, the poor and the working class in South Africa.”

Saftu’s long-awaited congress comes as the ANC and its alliance partners continue to splinter and frustration grows across the country at the slow pace of transformation and economic stagnation. It’s easy for Vavi and his comrades to assume the moral authority Cosatu once had; it will be much harder to build Saftu into a federation that might wield the same influence. DM

Photo: Then Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi speaks at a news conference in Johannesburg, Thursday, 25 August 2011, Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options