Opinionista Irvin Jim 15 November 2015

Can the Cosatu Congress save the workers federation from collapse?

If the Cosatu Special Congress in July is a guide, the “normal” national congress later this month will be another stage-managed rally, with handpicked delegates in the majority unions, voting by a show of hands, private security guards to “maintain order”, and any dissent quashed.

On 23-26 November 2015, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) will be holding its 12th National Congress. A week later, on 1st December, it will be marking its 30th anniversary, but South African workers will not be celebrating, because this once powerful, militant and democratic workers movement of Elijah Barayi and Jay Naidoo, is stuck in a terminal crisis.

The Cosatu leadership found it “regrettable” when former President, and National Union of Mineworkers General Secretary, Kgalema Motlanthe, told Business Day that “to talk about Cosatu as an independent organisation from the ANC or the SACP, I think, is a delusion”. But he was telling the truth, and the truth hurts.

He added, again truthfully, that: “You have a situation where the office bearers actively go and divide the unions. I can’t think of anyone who claims to be a trade unionist who, can with clear conscience expel 350,000 workers; it is unheard of…. How will such a trade unionist respond to an organiser who says I have just organised a factory with 30 workers?”

“Was that a decision of Cosatu or the SACP or the ANC,” he asks. “How was it that such a decision just went through?” and concluded that “there’s no alliance, it’s one organisation, the same people taking decisions.”

This reinforces the view of the nine unions, who fought against Numsa’s expulsion, that our federation has been stolen by the ruling class, by a leadership whose first loyalty is no longer to the workers who voted for them, and pay their salaries, but to their allies in government, to the ruling party and their personal financial and careerist interests. The once powerful, united and independent federation of workers is approaching its 30th anniversary as a spokesperson of the ruling class of capitalist exploiters. Its birthday will be more like a funeral than a party.

As well as this political expropriation of the federation, there is a crisis spreading throughout the affiliates who provide the current leadership of Cosatu, many of which are mired in corruption scandals, and are leaking members to a growing stream of breakaway unions.

The Hawks arrested three South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) officials during a meeting of its Central Executive Committee (CEC), in relation to allegations that a financial consultant, who has been in prison since March, illegally misappropriated R178million of Samwu funds, channelled the money into the accounts of union officials, and himself. The CEC also suspended its General Secretary, Walter Theledi, who is now on the run from the police. Yet Cosatu leaders have said nothing.

Yet, earlier this year Samwu expelled nearly 160 of its members and staff who demanded a forensic audit into the very allegations which led to the arrests. They have now formed a new union, the Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union (Demawusa), based on democratic principles that Samwu has abandoned, and it is being swamped with applications from disgusted Samwu members.

Cosatu leaders still recognise the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union, (Ceppwawu) unconstitutional leaders, and even launched an attack on the registrar at the Department of Labour, Johan Crouse, who had correctly intervened to place the union under administration for failing to provide audited financial statements for several years.

Former president of the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), June Dube, has formed a second splinter union, the Democratic Transport Workers Union (Detawu), amid allegations of corruption by other leaders. Another former president heads the National Transport Movement, formed in 2012.

A third former president, Ezrom Mabyana, is currently serving a suspended jail sentence, after pleading guilty of stealing millions from workers trust funds, and buying himself a house for R3.6 million. Satawu General Secretary, Zenzo Mahlangu, and former deputy president, Robert Mashego, have also appeared in court on corruption charges, but have pleaded not guilty, and await their day in court. Yet, leaders of such unions will be heading their delegations to the Cosatu National Congress, hundreds of members of these and other unions will be voiceless, after being expelled for expressing dissent.

If the Cosatu Special Congress in July is a guide, the “normal” national congress in November will be another stage-managed rally, with handpicked delegates in the majority unions, voting by a show of hands, private security guards to “maintain order”, and any dissent quashed. What little opposition can be maintained, will be completely snuffed out if two resolutions on the agenda are passed by the sycophantic delegates. Police and prison officers union, Popcru, wants to determinate a “minimum membership requirement for those new unions requiring to affiliate, and current affiliates with lesser numbers should be given a timeframe to meet minimum requirements”.

This would threaten several existing smaller unions, and concentrate even more power into the hands of the leaders of a few big affiliates. The South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) has an even worse resolution; that “COSATU and individual affiliates should take steps against any affiliate of affiliate structures who invite any dismissed, suspended or any member facing internal disciplinary processes to their meetings.”

This could lead to the immediate expulsion of those unions which opposed the action taken against Numsa and Zwelinzima Vavi, who hosted them at meetings. It would, also, prevent any future opposition groupings from their democratic right to hear those with different views. That is why Numsa and Vavi are not going to submit appeals against their expulsion and dismissal, which would give legitimacy to the proceedings.

All this has led to one group of workers, after another moving away from Cosatu, to form new unions. As well as Demawusa, Detawu and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), we now have the SA Liberated Public Service and Allied Workers Union (Salipswu), the Finance Union of Workers (Fuwo) and the National Union of Community Healthcare Workers of SA (Nucwosa).

While the formation of new breakaway unions is understandable and welcome, it will not in itself solve those workers problems, and makes the problem of fragmentation of the trade union movement even worse. The 24% organised workers who are union members are scattered among three registered labour federations, and 179 registered trade unions. The biggest challenge of all is that 76% of workers are unorganised, most of them in the most vulnerable sectors. The wages of 54% of workers are fixed by employers without any negotiations, and only 9% determined through centralised collective bargaining. We are farther than ever from the goal of One Country – One Federation, and indeed the disintegration of Cosatu is taking us in the opposite direction. That is why our biggest challenge is to build a new militant, independent, democratic, and united workers movement. To this end Numsa fully backs the call for a Workers Summit, involving the broadest possible number of independent and representative workers federations and unions, including Cosatu and all its affiliates.

While we mourn the demise of Cosatu, our response must be to mobilise and rebuild a federation that reaches out to the seven million unorganised workers, and all existing union members, and convince them that we can work together, despite our historical organisational and cultural differences, and create a new revolutionary socialist mass workers movement. DM

Irvin Jim is the General Secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.

This is the first of four articles on the Cosatu National Congress. The next one will look at the 70 000-word long Political Report to the Congress.

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