Cosatu was born in a troubled time, in the furnace of a State of Emergency, one that was declared by the leaders of the Apartheid regime and that was enforced with violence, brutality and rage.
Looking back, it’s hard to remember how I survived the attacks on Cosatu leadership in those early days. Was it fate or coincidence, or perhaps both? Many of our most courageous leaders did not survive. Funerals were part of the deadly theatre of our daily lives.
Those leaders died fighting for the next generation to have a better life. The living sacrificed everything, including families, jobs and homes. But our fight for rights did not end at the factory gate. Our goal was the restoration of human dignity and social justice in our country.
Those painful and painstakingly driven negotiations brought together disparate tendencies in the aftermath of the murder of the unionist Neil Aggett and the commencement of the Unity Talks. There were old ANC activists, those of us who had graduated from the black consciousness movement led by Steve Biko, along with white Marxist intellectuals, social democrats, communists and many others.
We united as the Apartheid state pounded us, knowing that our power came from the shop floor, from every member of our organisation. We organised labour into a disciplined, tight federation built on national industrial unions, and we knew that this was the only way to grow and take on the enemy.
But we also knew, as the noose of the military securocrats tightened, that our real power was the members and our coalition, with grassroots movements organised under the United Democratic Movement.
As our buildings were bombed, and thousands of activists were detained, our townships and schools were occupied by the South African Defence Force (SADF). Still, we knew that the democratic link between leadership and membership was key to our survival.
We knew that even when Cosatu House was bombed by Eugene de Kock on the instruction of the Ministers of Police and Defence, our internal democracy – our commitment to building workers’ power on the shop floor and in the shop stewards’ councils – was what made the federation so powerful.
Cosatu’s successful mobilisation in the workplace, right at the Achilles heel of the Apartheid state, played an instrumental role in the economic stalemate that emerged in the late Eighties, in turn creating the conditions for a political settlement that led to the birth of our constitutional democracy under the leadership of President Nelson Mandela in 1994.
Those are the roots of struggle and sacrifice of which I hope to remind the current leadership of Cosatu as they embark on a journey that will see the final implosion of this once mighty and militant federation that inspired the country, its workers and social activists around the world.
We vowed at our founding congress to protect and uphold the independence of Cosatu. We swore that we would never concede to being the conveyor belt of any political party, including the ANC. Our independence was a safeguard against yellow unionism.
Our alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1990 was based on a clear programme of action to address the legacy of Apartheid poverty, joblessness, poor quality education and health, and the huge backlog of basic services to our people.
It was also critical that we built a strong political centre at that time to counter the powerful right wing and reactionary forces that had almost brought us to the edge of a racial civil war, especially after the 1993 assassination of our working class hero, Comrade Chris Hani.
And so Cosatu, like so many other NGOs and social movements, was caught in limbo. We now had a democratic state run by the ANC as a majority ruling party – a party that was in an alliance to which we belonged. It served Cosatu well as we saw many of our labour market policies, including the right to strike, enshrined in our Constitution and made into the law of the land.
But by 1996, the schisms emerged with the introduction of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), which sowed the seeds of an imperial Presidency, one that viewed the Alliance as an encumbrance. GEAR introduced an era that saw the beginning of the end of people-participation and consultation. This was the point where the public debate that came from within the Alliance was critical, and where the independence of the union movement should have been protected.
We all failed to rise to the challenge.
A new federation based on a marriage of industrial and public sector unions is challenging anywhere in the world. Ultimately, they have different interests, especially at the leadership level. Public sector unions invariably want a closer link to government and political parties. It suits their interests, especially in collective bargaining. Industrial unions need exactly the opposite.
In the confusion, Cosatu leadership became increasingly drawn into leadership contests within the ANC, and committed the ultimate sin of looking up to political power rather than focusing on building workers’ power. The lesson missed was that unionism anywhere in the world is seen by the political elites see only a vote bank— and they will use you and abuse you in the end. Independent unionism outside the rhetoric is rarely tolerated.
By the beginning of 2000, we had become a “normal” democracy. The rise of the new economic elites, built on BEE deals, saw the nexus of power and money growing stronger. Cosatu was increasingly marginalised and power within was shifting to the growing public sector unions.
The metamorphosis was complete.
Sadly, there is no political will to go back to the founding principles. Cosatu will implode. History will judge the current bunch of leaders harshly. This has been the biggest betrayal of the workers’ struggle in the history of South Africa.
In an environment where workers are being retrenched daily, working people have more and more dependents. Workers have to pay more out of their pockets for health, education and transport. The working class faces enormous challenges.
The increasing failure of service delivery imposes another drain on workers’ wages. And the increasing load shedding diminishes workers’ earnings, as lost time due to decreased production is rarely paid. Ultimately, it is not business that is made to sacrifice, but the workers.
In these trying times, the workers’ voice is limited to empty- sounding resolutions and press conferences, or to the interminable fighting of Twitter wars. Cosatu is a ghost on the factory floor. And that is a mortal sin to us all.
So where to now?
The daggers are drawn and plunged deep into the body of the organisation, the lifeblood spilling out onto the earth of Marikana and the slums our people still live in. Cosatu will haemorrhage members; but within that crisis the potential of a new federation, a dream of those pioneering leaders whose deep desire in 1985 was for “One Federation, One Country”, may be within the grasp of the next generation of leaders. Maybe. There appears to be no more debate about the organisation’s future. It will be clinically sanitised to perform its political purpose of serving those in power.
Cosatu will haemorrhage members; but within that crisis the potential of a new federation, a dream of those pioneering leaders whose deep desire in 1985 was for “One Federation, One Country”, may be within the grasp of the next generation of leaders. Maybe.
What we urgently need now is a federation of unions committed to building workers’ power that may, from time to time, seek out common programs that address the challenges of its membership but remains steadfastly independent as an organisation.
That would be the best outcome this country could wish for.
Hopefully there are women and men of integrity and courage who will rise like phoenixes from a burning Cosatu, all in the service of bringing the union movement back to the centre of our politics.
It needs to happen. We have to make it happen. Or this country may very well be doomed. DM
"Last century’s magic is this year’s science." ~ Cherie Priest