Defend Truth


Taking a broken Cosatu to its birthplace

Dinga Sikwebu is a coordinator of the United Front. He has been in involved with the labour movement since 1980 and has served as the head of Numsas head of education for two decades.

The use of collective bargaining as an instrument of redistribution has led to protracted strikes whose main triggers are demands for higher wages. The inability of unions to carry forward these wage struggles have led to disenchantment with existing unions and formation of breakaway unions. 

Tomorrow, Saturday 05 December, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) goes back to where it was established in 1985 to celebrate its 30th anniversary. The federation will hold a rally at Curries Fountain stadium in Durban under the theme: Celebrating Thirty Years of Defending the Working Class. Like in any ritual, self-congratulatory salutations will definitely punctuate this weekend’s event.

Coming a week after the federation’s national congress, the re-elected Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini’s assertion that that the federation was about to enter “a period of bright sunshine characterised by robustness, organisational unity and cohesion” will continuously be echoed, and will have resonance among those that will fill up the stadium. On the podium, there will be all the Judas hugs and kisses among the African National Congress (ANC), Cosatu and South African Communist Party (SACP) leaders to hide that they lead a fractured Tripartite Alliance.

To show that all is well, and that Cosatu is a broken organisation is a recent book: Cosatu in Crisis: The Fragmentation of an African Trade Union Federation. With Vishwas Satgar and Roger Southall as editors, the book is a collection of ten chapters mainly written by academics that historically studied or have been associated with the labour movement in South Africa. The book is based on a shopsteward survey conducted face-to-face with 2,051 Cosatu shop stewards in 2012.

Although not in full agreement about when the crisis of the union federation began, the different authors present a diagnosis that reveals that Cosatu’s woes are multifaceted, deep and go back many years. One contributor traces the crisis in Cosatu to the compromise reached in the federation’s formative years between the United Democratic Front (UDF)-aligned unions, and affiliates with strong independent shop-floor traditions that mostly, but not exclusively, were associated with the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu). Other authors attribute the rot to the entry of Cosatu into the Tripartite Alliance with the ANC and SACP in the early 1990s.

However one periodises the start of the problem, there is general agreement among the majority of the contributors that alignment to the ruling party, and the orientation to the state was, and is, still, a major obstacle to Cosatu forging alliances with other social movements. It is also a source of the growth of a distance between the federation and community struggles. The analysis in Cosatu in Crisis shows that although two-thirds of respondents agreed that service delivery was poor, the 2012 survey of Cosatu shop stewards revealed that that just a third of those interviewed participated in community organisations, and that under a quarter had participated in a community protest. The over-reliance on striking deals in Tripartite Alliance summits seemed to have turned the attention from the real task of building the organisation and campaigns from below with other non-labour movements. But it is not only the issue of political alignment that the contributors see as the sources of the crisis in Cosatu. They point to five other factors that have been eating up Cosatu: the inability to organise precarious labour; the changing class composition of Cosatu’s membership; the depoliticisation of shopsteward layers; bureaucratisation, and fragmentation.

First, the majority of the authors highlight the inability of Cosatu to adequately respond to what one contributor describes as a “de facto deregulation of the labour market”. Drawing on different studies and reports, Cosatu in Crisis portrays an experience of many workers where permanent wage work is becoming “atypical” while forms of work that were earlier in the 1990s referred as “atypical,” such as casual work, temporary employment and labour-broking are becoming the norm. Despite numerous resolutions to organise these vulnerable sectors of the labour force, unions on both sides of the Cosatu fight remain organisations of full-time and permanent employment.

Second, class differentiation refers to increasing gradations within the workforce and between union officials and ordinary workers. Three chapters in the book refer to the increase in the number of Cosatu members who occupy supervisory, clerical and semi-professional occupations relative to semi-skilled and unskilled workers. There is also a growing weight of public service unions within the federation. Cosatu in Crisis puts at 39% in 2012 the membership of Cosatu, drawn from public sector unions. This is a significant growth, if one considers that public servants constituted only 7% in 1991.

The third development that the 2012 survey reveals, and that is analysed in Cosatu in Crisis is widespread de-politicisation and de-radicalisation of Cosatu shop stewards. More than three quarters (78%) of shop stewards surveyed believe that trade unions must be concerned with worker more than societal issues. More than two thirds of those who took part in the research believe that in the context of an economic crisis, workers must be protected, first, before the plight of unemployed is addressed. Close to half of the shop stewards believe that strikes do not yield the required results and more interestingly 58% of those surveyed believe that it is their role to curtail and prevent strikes.

The fourth processes that the book discerns are varying levels of bureaucratisation within Cosatu and its affiliates. The authors point to numerous institutions that have been established in the post-1994 period which require skilled officials with higher levels of education and knowledge. These developments have led to a creation of a layer of full-time officials, office bearers and shop stewards who enjoy better benefits compared to their peers. The post-1994 dispensation has opened floodgates for promotion of shop stewards and appointment of officials into managerial positions Two-thirds of those interviewed in the 2012 do not see anything untoward in shop stewards graduating and being promoted into managerial positions. Breaking from the stereotype that the shop stewards perceive themselves or act permanently in opposition to management, the book reports that 35% of the respondents saw commonality between them as worker representatives and management.

The fifth factor that undermines Cosatu, according to the authors is the ongoing fragmentation of the labour movement. Cosatu in Crisis paints a picture of a system of industrial relations and collective bargaining that is under severe pressure and strain. As levels of unemployment, inequality and poverty increase; workers see collective bargaining as an instrument of redistribution to take of care of their plight and that of their unemployed families. The use of collective bargaining as an instrument of redistribution has led to protracted strikes whose main triggers are demands for higher wages. The inability of unions to carry forward these wage struggles have led to disenchantment with existing unions and formation of breakaway unions.

While the authors have tried to analyse what is clearly a difficult and evolving, there are obvious silences in their analyses, and in some instances a lapse into default analytical paradigms that have led Cosatu into a political cul-de-sac. Two such analytical lapses are the way the introduction of the raft of mid-1990s labour legislation is viewed, and the treatment of the introduction of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy in 1996, as the turning point the country’s economic policy making processes. Instead of viewing the introduction of the laws like the Labour Relations Act (LRA) and Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) as both a codification of rights won by workers from the 1970s, and as instruments to blunt worker militancy, the new laws and institutional arrangements are heralded as the new dawn for labour. A number of chapters in Cosatu in Crisis attribute federation’s loss of power to the introduction of Gear in 1996; blinding us from seeing how “late apartheid” flirted with neoliberalism, and how through think-tanks like the Economic Trends Group and Industrial Strategy Project (ISP) Cosatu and Numsa dabbled with policies of global competitiveness and advocated policies that called for opening of South Africa’s economy.

Cosatu in Crisis is silent on a number of issues that are vital in coming to grips with the sources and elements of the crisis of the trade union movement. For instance, the book does not touch on the process of centralisation that transformed Cosatu from a loose to a centralist federation with an over-reach that allows the centre to intervene in affiliates. The book is also silent about the rise of powerful general secretaries that accompanied the decline in worker control in affiliates. The book is mum on organisational cultures that have developed within unions that have lead to hierarchies, authoritarianism, majoritarian practices that trample on rights of significant minorities, anti-democratic tendencies and politics built on masculine sexual entitlements. The book fails to look at how organisational structures and bargaining strategies have been unable to act as counterweights to bureaucratisation and de-politicisation of shop stewards. No chapter in the book deals with the decline in internal democracy, and the drift into political monolithicism, as Cosatu outsourced formulation of its political perspectives to the SACP.

Although 71% of respondents in the 2012 shopsteward survey agreed that there was corruption in unions, nowhere in Cosatu in Crisis is there an analysis of how unions as organisations have become enmeshed in capitalist networks as procurers of good and services; and through a network of unionists who sit on boards, and who disperse billions to asset management companies as trustees of benefit funds. Not touched in the book is how in this context, patronage works, and is used within unions.

Without an honest assessment of how we got here, the labour movement risks the possibility of losing its relevance and further fragmentation. Without deep soul-searching, Cosatu will just be a rump that stumbles from one disaster to the next. Equally, for those who aspire to revitalise the labour movement and are talking about a new federation, without an honest balance sheet of their complicity in the mess the union movement is in, what they will build will be nothing more than a carbon copy of a degenerate Cosatu. DM

Sikwebu is a coordinator of the United Front. He has been in involved with the labour movement since 1980 and has served as the head of Numsa’s head of education for two decades.


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