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Mayday 2014: Cosatu’s tough choice of the politics of workers unity or politics of political parties


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

Cosatu is at a crossroads. It can grow in relevance as the core of a new realigned and independent labour movement that embraces the dream and hope of its historic founding mission of One Country, One Federation. Or it can face an uncertain future of declining relevance and political infighting that will consign it to the pages of history books. Never before in its proud 29 years of representing the aspirations of workers in SA has the choice been so stark.

The memory of 1 May 1986, 28 years ago, is a vivid one. A frontal attack on Cosatu was launched within a stadium of 60,000 screaming impis attending the launch of our rival, UWUSA, the labour wing of the Inkatha Freedom Party. They marched the march of war, chanting for death around the sports field of the Kings Park stadium, a coffin held high emblazoned with the words “Barayi/Naidoo. Cosatu is dead.” All of it was a deadly reminder of what was to come.


That fateful day occurred on the 100th anniversary of May Day. Cosatu wanted the International Labour Day to be declared a paid public holiday. The Apartheid state was at its core anti-worker, and used its array of poisonous laws to cripple us. And the launch of UWUSA, with its anti-Cosatu rhetoric, was given full coverage and was yelled from state mouthpieces, especially the SABC.

Cosatu was defiant. We called for a stay-away arguing that “[i]f you, the illegitimate racist government, do not declare this a public holiday, we the workers of South Africa, will do so. And we will close down this economy and unilaterally declare our day.” On 1 May, 1986, more than 1,5-million workers observed the call, joined by millions of school pupils, students, taxi drivers, hawkers, shopkeepers, domestic workers, self-employed and unemployed people. May Day was won by sustained mass action and etched in the South African calendar forever.

That was the Cosatu the world celebrated.

The following year, the attacks intensified. The National State of Emergency, into which Cosatu was born, was extended and brutally enforced. We were under siege daily. Military style assaults were launched as the tens of thousands of workers took to the streets, demanding a living wage and a removal of anti-worker labour laws and political restrictions on Cosatu.

With many of our allied organisations in the UDF disrupted and thousands of activists in detention, Cosatu became the backbone of the internal resistance.

In the eyes of the shadowy and deadly security forces, we were the Public Enemy No 1. Many of our leaders were on death lists. Right wing employers were using Apartheid laws to sue us for damages. Our offices around the country were bombed. Then in the early hours of the morning of 7 May 1987, two large bombs ripped through the basement of Cosatu House in Johannesburg. The Apartheid state had struck at our nerve centre, hoping to disrupt our lines of communication and organizing.

Our headquarters imploded, rendered unusable. But our momentum continued forward nevertheless. That was the Cosatu the world respected.

On Monday, 10 August 1987, led by the NUM, 340,000 miners went on strike, demanding a 30% wage increase for 1987/88, the abolition of the migrant labour system, and improved hostel accommodation. Twenty-one one days later, with over 50,000 dismissals and brutal action from mine bosses and the Apartheid state, workers were forced to call off the strike.

But we had shaken the ruling establishment to its foundations. We would return. Labour relations in the heart of the Apartheid economy became more militant, more radical and more determined to bring down the Apartheid state. We were strong; our leadership was principled and answerable only to our members.

Our independence as an organisation was uncompromised. It was our firm belief that our power was not in offices, but in the powerful, democratic workers’ organisation we called home. We demanded our rights. And we got them.
That was the Cosatu the evil hated.


Turn that clock forward 28 years – a year longer that what our founding father, Nelson Mandela, spent in prison fighting for our rights. And where is Cosatu now?

On 1 May, 2014, Cosatu faces a watershed, a test of its relevance to the working class.

The Marikana massacre marked a seminal moment in our democracy, and the response of Cosatu was a singular failure. The platinum sector and the protracted strike currently underway have demonstrated the loss of trust in the union and its obliviousness to the needs of its members.

While violence from any side is inexcusable, deadly force from a democratic state is a cardinal sin. It strikes at the heart of our Constitutional Democracy. Violence and counter-violence becomes the norm, the only language communities believe will get their leaders to listen. If we do not act decisively on the grievances that drive this hostility, we will fail as a state.

I see none of these critical issues being discussed in Cosatu. Real issues affecting workers have disappeared under a cloud of the current pre-election denialism.

The same diseases which prompted the formation of Cosatu remain to this day. The migrant labour remains as deeply entrenched as ever, as subcontracted labour and casualisation continue to marginalise the workers’ families. Inequality and inequity are still with us. The number of dependents supported by a single breadwinner has grown; the micro-loan sharks are lurking around our factories and mines, driving up wage pressures.

The mere consideration of the expulsion of NUMSA—or any union in Cosatu—for voicing a different political view has no precedent in the history of the federation. It is suicidal for any self-respecting, independent labour movement to act in such a way. Members join a union because, first and foremost, they want to be protected from their employers. 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 defined 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. It was never an alliance based on some warped idea of political loyalty, or 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.

In the minds of these Alliance leaders a strong ANC required as a prerequisite a strong and independent Cosatu.


The world has changed in 28 years, and South Africa with it. The era of large-scale production is over. As wage pressures grow in China, sweatshop industries mass-producing consumer goods are looking for lower cost and union-bashing countries. This can never be the future of economic development in SA.

But what is our alternative?

Today globally the nature of work organisation has changed in the formal economy. Many of the single employer factories have multiple outsourced employers for different functions such as cleaning, and security. Nine out of 10 jobs in sub-Saharan Africa are in the informal economy. What value does union organising bring to these workers? Informal traders face tremendous challenges and exploitation from authorities, police and their suppliers of goods.

Our education system is designed to train people to look for jobs rather than create their own livelihoods. There are no really effective mechanisms that support black entrepreneurship, and thus thousands of black university graduates end walking the streets.

Add to this our fragmented industrial policy, which sees the bulk of our raw materials exported and with that we millions of jobs. Should our industrial policy not embrace the backlog of social infrastructure from schools, housing, roads, and sanitation? Why are the basic needs of our people not the central plank of union policy?

Only an independent united labour movement articulating a coherent vision and based on our founding principles of “One Federation, One Country” in a united single federation is capable of leading workers of all stripes forward into this cold new age.

We built a tripartite alliance in 1990 in order to create a mass popular movement for fundamental social transformation. It is clear that the Alliance had an important stabilising impact on our fragile transition and inspired millions of workers and the broad strata of poor in our country. Cosatu membership ended up as a simple bulk vote bank, traded by union leaders for fringe benefits in the political class.

With half our population living in poverty and millions unemployed, the wage pressure on existing workers rises as the number of dependents increases; workers are asking: what is the value proposition we are negotiating on return for our support?

The burning question Cosatu needs to ask today is: what is the content of a role of an Alliance today? Is there still a need for an Alliance?


The central task of worker leaders has to be implementing our 1985 resolution of One Federation, One Country. Cosatu, NACTU and FEDUSA need to commit urgently to a process of delivering this strategic objective. In an environment of declining union membership, the merger of unions in super sectors needs to be turbocharged. It’s been years since the last merger took place, while serious talk of united action was last debated at the Workers Summit in 1987.

Simultaneously, in the face of increasing casualisation and the informalisation of economy, organisations representing informal traders needs to be brought into the fold. So are the millions of farm workers, domestic workers and unemployed, asking whether Cosatu offers them a home and hope that one day we would deliver the ‘better life’ we promised as an Alliance under the leadership of Mandela.

If Cosatu is to  return to its glory days of movement-building, at the core of which were vibrant local shop steward councils run by committed men and women. These leaders were not just factory floor leaders but leaders in their communities, bringing their experience and negotiation skills to creating one of the more important workers’ movements in history.

Last year, there were more than 13,000 service delivery protests, all of them in poor communities, where workers and their families live. It is to these non-performing or non-existent schools and clinics that the working class send their children.
Surely it’s their future we hold as our most important goal.

Is this not the time for a new approach?

Should it not return to the basics of organising that won us our freedom. A commitment to hard work and unity. A belief in the fact that rights are only rights if they belong to us all. That work should come with the dignity with work and the right to housing, quality health and education, safety and basic services.

Workers and their unions should today take one step back, regroup and consolidate the vision we had of One Federation, One Country. Only then will have the clarity and power to take two steps forward. That is the politics of unity that will restore the powerful role that the organized workers movement played in our past.

Perhaps South Africa will be able to celebrate May Day once more. But we must go back to basics and understand why we were there in the first place. DM