In my first article on the Cosatu 12th National Congress, which starts today, I focussed on the organisational crisis within Cosatu, many of whose affiliates are mired in corruption scandals and leaking members to a stream of breakaway unions.
Underlying these problems however is a deep political crisis, which has led to this once powerful and independent federation of workers as an adjunct of the ANC and SACP and a mouthpiece of the ruling class. For further evidence you have to look no further than the Cosatu Secretariat’s own Political Report to the Congress.
In the past this document was the centrepiece of every Congress, setting the political agenda not only for the Congress itself but for the coming years. It summed up the political situation in South Africa and the world, catalogued the federation’s successes and failures, outlined the challenges delegates would have to debate and charted the way forward.
This year’s offering, however, does none of these things. It is a huge 70,673-word, incoherent shambles, full of copy-and-paste items from all sorts of sources, some of them very good, but not leading to any political conclusions, or twisted to justify the views of the current leadership, despite being either irrelevant or in some cases proving the exact opposite.
The main controversy between the current Cosatu leadership and its critics has been over the government’s economic policies. Numsa has argued that the triple crisis of high unemployment, increasing poverty and widening inequality is rooted in the ANC government’s consolidation of even more power into the hands of white monopoly capitalism. In particular, the adoption of the neoliberal Gear policy in 1996, the removal of exchange controls and high interests rates, all of which have been taken forward in the National Development Plan.
Through its control of the Treasury, big business has sabotaged reforms such as the national health insurance scheme and comprehensive social security. The federation’s leaders condemned those of us who have criticised the ANC government’s capitulation to the demands of monopoly capitalism as “anti-majoritarian”, yet the report’s copy-and-pastes provide detailed evidence in support of these critics:
“From the mid-1990s, exchange rate volatility increased after the removal of financial rand exchange controls. On the one hand high interest rates attracted short-term capital flows whilst on the other hand the relaxation of capital controls gave new impetus to capital outflows, which sapped the country of resources that could be invested domestically…
“The policy choices and political indecisions we have taken as a country have led to our economy remaining highly monopolised and foreign-owned… This position on its own compromises our standing amongst … BRICS countries and let alone from the point of view of the imperialist forces who can exploit this weaknesses as a point of entry to undermine our country’s sovereignty.”
These are some of the very points made by critics of the government’s neoliberal policies, yet Cosatu leaders slavishly support the government responsible for them.
Governments in Venezuela and Brazil, began to implement very different developmental economic policies, which are now threatened by right-wing counter-offensives, yet the current Cosatu leadership argue as if the ANC had carried out similar policies and faces similar right-wing threats:
“In South Africa we have seen similar attempts encored (sic) around the anti – majoritarian offensive led by the opposition. This included mounting a campaign both in parliament and outside parliament to undermine the ANC-led government. This campaign included calls the mobilization of some civil society organization around such campaigns as Vote No campaign, “Pay Back the money”… All these attempts, like those of the right wing in Brazil and Venezuela, continue to fail.”
It totally misses the point that the angry popular opposition to the South Africa government has arisen not from opportunist politicians within Parliament, but from among the workers and the poor, precisely because the government failed to implement the kind of policies attempted by Chavez, in Venezuela, and Lula in Brazil.
The report describes, and rightly condemns United States imperialism, which “implements its strategy of destabilisation, subversion, and arming reactionaries, with compliant media spreading their version of events. This is the same strategy being applied in Syria, Venezuela and certain countries in Africa and that was applied in Libya to such horrendous effect.”
Yet incredibly it goes on to draw parallels in South Africa, where: “we have seen a rise in the formation of social movements which mainly receive their funding from foreign aid. Most of their programmes have, in the main, been directed at exposing government inefficiencies, including in some instances agitating communities around service delivery protests.
“Given the weaknesses of the movement as a whole many of these community protests took place without the leadership of any of the alliance structures including COSATU. This has to a greater extent become a platform which became available for exploitation by the opposition to intensify their anti-majoritarian offensive against the democratic government.”
It is unbelievable that Cosatu leaders can claim that South African community protests against government inefficiencies, can be equated with US imperialist strategies to “apply regime change” in countries like Venezuela, Ukraine and Thailand – “a form of action designed to make it impossible for the existing government to govern”.
Another area where the copy-and pastes actually reinforce its critics is on the viability of the tripartite alliance, which Numsa’s special national congress in 2013 resolved, was “dysfunctional, in crisis and paralysed. It is dominated by infighting and factionalism and fails to meet regularly”. And what does the Cosatu political report say?
“A permanent feature of the alliance has been that all the issues we secure in a debate are never implemented and instead raising them over and over again becomes an irritation… The biggest challenge regarding the functionality of the Alliance has not been the holding of meetings but it has been the fact that all the progressive decisions taken at the Summit were never implemented.”
Perhaps the most revealing of all the report’s copy-and-pastes however is a very good analysis of the growing problems of corruption within the unions and society:
“Over the years there has emerged within the components of the liberation movement a grouping which uses the policy and political space provided by our organisations to advance their own selfish interests…
“It is when members get to support one union leader on the basis of patronage which comes with such benefits as access to trade union cars, lap tops, getting favours for international trips, access to exclusive and discriminatory training opportunities in which one section of shop stewards is in favour for international trips and training over others.
“In all these cases the core trade union work gets compromised because a leader cannot mobilise for a strike against employers who are also his or her business partners or a shop steward compromises the case of a worker because he or she has been promised a promotion post.
“The current state of COSATU makes it impossible for the leadership to decisively intervene to protect the image of the COSATU. More worryingly, COSATU is getting divided even around the need to battle against corruption within its ranks and society.” (My emphasis – IJ)
Thus, in its own political report to the National Congress, Cosatu leaders condemn themselves in the most brutal fashion for their inability to unite against the crisis of “corruption within its ranks and society”, but without accepting any responsibility for such a disastrous state of affairs.
This illustrates better than anything I could say about why Cosatu has reached the end of the road. DM
Irvin Jim is the General Secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.