“We must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” – Martin Luther King
We dreamt of a day when no one would treat us as subjects, and no arrogant regime would strip us of our human dignity. In founding leaders of this mighty federation, the organised working class of this country poured all of their trust, and all of their strength.
Yet today, COSATU stands at the brink of an implosion. The leadership faces its moment of truth. Perhaps if they were there in the time when worker leaders, during that painful period of our history, put together the foundations of South Africa’s largest and most militant union movement, they would now be making the right decisions. But these are different times; I am doubtful.
While it is undeniable that we have made progress as a democracy, today, 20 years later, I see Madiba’s covenant—“[to be] able to walk tall, without any fear in our hearts, assured of our inalienable right to human dignity”—is increasingly damaged by the impunity and arrogance of those who hold power in our land. I see that in the unions. I see that in our government. Our backs, straight for that brief and beautiful moment shortly in 1994, are bending again under the weight of a new political elite. The culture of fear is raising its ugly head. And the union members are rightfully asking whether they are again the cannon fodder of those who lord over them.
The impending decision to expel NUMSA, or any union in COSATU, for voicing a different political view or tendency has no precedent in the history of the federation. It is suicidal for any self-respecting, independent labour movement to do such a thing. Members join a union because, first and foremost, they want their rights to be defended on the factory floor. Workers almost never join a union based on political ideology.
I was part of the leadership that led Cosatu into an alliance with the ANC and SACP. It was an alliance, at the time, based on independent organisations agreeing to work together on a commonly agreed programme with clear objectives. We were making a commitment to a profound transformation of the cheap labour system and its attendant diseases of joblessness, poverty, gender violence and inequality that were the cogs in the Apartheid machine.
It was never an alliance based on some warped idea of political loyalty.
It was never an alliance designed to divide the labour movement’s unity.
In all my discussions with comrades such as OR Tambo, John Nkadimeng, Chris Hani, Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo, there was an explicit commitment to the political independence of Cosatu. They worked tirelessly in building the unity of the labour movement. COSATU, from its very beginnings, has always answered only to its members; this is deeply imprinted in its DNA.
If we believed that at any time such an alliance would pose a threat to the unity of COSATU, neither I, nor the broad collective political leadership, would have gone ahead with it.
And yet, we were wrong to believe COSATU’s independence will be respected in perpetuity. Today, 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 that we did in the past.” Their complaints are valid ones; union leadership is more engaged in looking up to the political elite than down to the base, where its real strength on the shop floor should give it a voice.
That COSATU CEC is pondering the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of workers strikes me as lunacy. At the very time when workers face the daunting challenges of the 21st century the very nature of the economy and work organisation has changed, their union is deserting them.
The digital revolution has fundamentally changed the way we live, the way we organise our lives, the way we access information, the way we communicate, work and play. The workers of today live in a world where the number of dependents supported by a single breadwinner has grown, and where marauding micro-loan sharks, often connected to political leadership, lurk around our factories and mines in order to plunge workers into a spiraling debt trap.
The World Economic Forum Global Risk 2014 report estimates that more than 50% of young South Africans between 15 and 24 are unemployed, the third highest figure in the world. These are the children of working people, and we have failed them. In 2013, the global competitiveness survey ranked South Africa last out of 148 countries for the quality of mathematics and science education, and 146th out of 148 for the quality of general education, putting us behind almost all of our African peers—despite one of the largest budgets for education on the continent.
We have destroyed the very pathways our children should have trod in order to avoid poverty and marginalisation. We have used our energy and our resources to empower a narrow economic and political elite. Those same resources could have gone into creating a generation of black entrepreneurs who would have driven our economic success in a more inclusive way, and generated the millions of jobs we need to keep moving forward.
And the statistics keep getting worse. The 2010 household survey indicates that the top 10% of earners in South Africa take away 101 times the earnings of the bottom 10% of the population. In 2008, the wealthiest 10% earned 58% of the total income, and the top 5% earned 43% of the total income. Inequality has grown under our watch.
The people in our workplaces, townships, rural areas and squatter camps are bitter that democracy has not delivered. They are angry that our leaders are not talking to the people, and are not working with them to solve their problems. We are not threatened from enemies outside our borders—our worse nightmares come from within.
We are our own worst enemies, our own worst nightmare.
The critical question right now is whether COSATU remains part of the solution, or whether the union has become part of the problem. 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 in 1994,
COSATU teeters and threatens to fall. COSATU’s masters used to be its members. Now it takes orders from other quarters.Can COSATU still rally and re-emerge triumphant? I cannot answer that question. It is up to the union leadership, the shop stewards and, of course, those workers who toil on factory floors, in the shafts underground, and across the length and breadth of our beautiful country.
Resting on past glory will not be enough. We have to make our future, or we will be engulfed by it. It’s time for COSATU—its leaders and its members—to remember the great mission that has long powered the federation forward. The stakes are too high to let it fail now. DM
Jay Naidoo was the founding General Secretary of COSATU
"We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings." ~ Ursula Le Guin