Defend Truth


The rise and fall of Cosatu: From vanguard to sacrificial lamb


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

The Cosatu that Elijah Barayi led was answerable only to its members. It never flinched in the face of brutal repression from either the Apartheid state or the bosses. It was a fighting force of organised workers not just on the shop floor, but it militantly espoused the political aspirations in society. Still, it always connected back to the factory floor for its mandates and to report back. That independence, deep in its DNA, gave it the moral fiber and ferocious stamina to endure the battles it faced. Today, it’s a very different organisation.

Careerism is poisoning the lifeblood of Cosatu. Gone are the days when we were inspired by the passion for justice and human dignity. Volunteerism and discipline defined the struggles we fought. As a volunteer organiser in the late Seventies, I remember standing outside the factory gates or hostels from early morning till late at night discussing issues with exhausted workers coming off shifts.

I remember those valuable lessons learnt from migrant workers, who often said to me:

You seem like a really committed comrade. But the pamphlet you distribute speak about issues that workers have no interest in. And they don’t understand it. We are concerned with wages, unfair dismissals, and abuse from the foreman. You have to start with the bread-and-butter issues that affect workers. Politics will come later.”

The backbone of Cosatu was built on the struggles of migrant workers. It was in those brutal hostel conditions where our first organisers met with battle scarred workplace activists and secretly plotted out the path forward. The dangers festered and we had to guard vigilantly against police, management informers, and the inevitable victimisation.

Starting from these inauspicious beginnings, the various strands had eventually come together into a powerful movement, united by the opposition to repression, opposition to a brutal regime that dehumanised South Africa and set us back decades. Years of organisation building, education and training had built an army of tens of thousands of Cosatu shop stewards, connected by an umbilical cord to needs, aspirations and hopes of workers on the shop floor. We were ready. We stood fist to fist ready to slug it out, in spite of many of our leaders being victimised, detained and our offices bombed. Our survival was driven from the ground, from the twin wells of understanding and commitment.

There was no Twitter, Facebook, e-mail or WhatsApp. We did not run our organisation through press conferences.

That dream was what crystallised on 1 December, 1985, when Elijah Barayi was elected the President and I the founding General Secretary of Cosatu. While we did not agree on every issue and had robust debates amongst the National Office Bearers, we always acted as a team in pursuing the interests of our members. And not once did we ignore the grassroots demand for debate on the Federation’s decisions.

Turn the clock 27 years to August 16, 2012, and the bloody stain of the Marikana massacre. It is the pinnacle of a growing ferment in our land. The people in our workplaces, townships, rural areas and squatter camps are bitter that democracy has not delivered the fruits that they see a tiny elite enjoying.

Our leaders across the spectrum are not talking to our people. They are not working with them systematically to solve their problems, in providing the hope that one day, even in their children’s lives, things will be better. It is a debilitating threat not from enemies outside, but those who lurk within our bosom.

Thousands of workers are deserting our Cosatu unions. They have lost trust in their branch leaders. I have been in many places where I am personally told: “Comrade, we do not see union organisers. We don’t know what is happening in our union. Our leaders are too involved in politics and we do not get the services and education we did in the past.”

It is true. Union leadership is more engaged in looking up to the political jockeying than down to the base of its members where its real strength on the shop floor should give it voice. We cannot hide the disunity and divisions that cripple Cosatu today.

The critical question is whether Cosatu has become part of the status quo, sucked into co-governing a political and economic system that is failing to deliver the promise of a better life we made to our people twenty years ago.

The current ructions within affiliates and the federation itself are evidence of an organisation in clear decline. The explosion of full-time shop stewards, trustees of pension funds and boards of union investment companies has created a layer of bureaucracy and careerism that is increasingly detached from the worker base.

Has the election to the position of shop steward, union official, union office bearer or trustee of a pension fund become part of system of patronage? Are our leaders seduced by the positions on government SETAs, state-owned corporations, board positions and the free trips to exotic locations in exchange for delivering their constituencies to business interests or to their political paymasters?

Across many union investment companies we have seen the hazards of unions venturing into business. That grey area has largely become a toxic cesspool in which union tenderpreneurs, commission-taking sharks and scam artists swim. Most of these companies have no levels of accountability to the union structures and in most benefit individuals and the union elites.

As activists we studied Gramsci especially in reference to his notion of ‘the iron law of oligarchy’. Is the union movement part of the system? Are the layers of union leadership, percolating down to the shop steward level, being sucked into a system of patronage that defends an inherently corrupt system itself?

I ask these questions not out of some ulterior political motive. I harbor a deep commitment to social and economic justice. While my Cosatu days are long over, and this indeed is a different time, the principle remains the same: Only the workers themselves can answer the burning questions of the modern union’s nature, structure and leadership. It was true then, and it is true today.

It was never supposed to happen this way. Cosatu should never have become a pawn in a greater political game of deadly chess; pawns are always the first and easiest to sacrifice.

Sadly, in a country that is facing as many problems as South Africa does today, Cosatu is but one example of a general decline that is afflicting the country. The issues that are facing are not much different from the issues that affect the lives of all citizens in South Africa today.

Many in our country are losing trust in their leaders; Cosatu is not different. But the question that is burning in my mind today is:

Did Cosatu lose trust in itself? DM


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