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The long zig-zag journey to One Country – One Federation and why we have yet not arrived


Karl Cloete is the former Numsa Deputy General Secretary. He writes in his personal capacity. (Photo: Netwerk24)

The time has arrived to embark on a tactical approach to the unity of the organised and unorganised workers operating in the South African labour market. 

The prominent and clarion call for One Country – One Federation largely came from the December 1985 Inaugural National Congress of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). 

The journey towards the formation of a single trade union federation post-South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) and Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) (amongst others) was fraught with difficulties in the four-year-long unity talks which ultimately resulted in the formation of Cosatu. In his book Fighting for Justice: A Lifetime of Political And Social Activism, Jay Naidoo makes the following remarks about this difficult and demanding journey:

“At a meeting of Transvaal shop stewards in early 1985, the re-inclusion of the UDF-affiliated unions in the unity talks towards a single federation was adopted. The Fosatu executive simultaneously called for a resumption of the talks. Although some unions in the Feasibility Committee were unhappy about this, they agreed to the proposal, provided that the progress made since the walk-out was not reversed. By now, Sactu, conscious of the powerful combination of joint labour community actions, supported vigorously the formation of ‘One Industry, One Union’.”

Albeit that Cosatu and Nactu fought many battles in militant campaigns since Cosatu’s birth, the idea of One Country – One Federation never proceeded from this necessary but at the same “feel-good resolution”, to a reality wherein the unity of workers was at the centre rather than which logos and political allegiance and adherence were more important or relevant than the other. 

It could well be that political alliances, ideological outlooks, organisational form and content, different administrative traditions and cultures kept the many different trade union federations from bringing about the unity of organised and unorganised workers in the formal and informal economies. More problematic in this equation is the fact that the unemployed are hardly mentioned as a component part of the unity of workers. In fact, the real-life experience of workers who have been retrenched or dismissed from companies is that they are abandoned by their unions, perhaps because they no longer contribute subscriptions to the coffers of their former unions.

Why is the unity of organised workers so important?

Research has shown that workers employed in the South African economy and in the public service have a union density of 23% meaning that about 77% of workers do not belong to a union and thus employers can determine the conditions of employment and wages as they see fit. 

A 2017 Department of Labour report suggests that the number of registered trade unions belonging to Cosatu, Fedusa, Nactu, Consawu as well as independent registered trade unions amounted to 193. 

A 2019 Department of Labour report reveals that there were 205 registered trade unions in South Africa with 24 trade union federations.

All trade unions must be extremely worried that workers are either not interested in joining a trade union or are comfortable taking employment as they receive it irrespective of bad working conditions associated with such employment. This of course is not a South African phenomenon. Except for in the United Kingdom, trade union membership is on the decline worldwide.

This reality alone must spur trade unions on to work for the greatest unity of the organised and the unorganised.

A palpable reality is a discord that exists when public-sector unions engage the state in the battle for better wages, resistance to fill public sector vacancies and broader socio-economic struggles. In this situation, Cosatu and Saftu, as the two largest federations in the country, continue to take on government and business in S77 socio-economic strikes without any serious endeavours to join forces to strengthen the muscle of workers against their oppression and exploitation.

Attempts to foster closer relations between the two big trade union federations have always resulted in their failure to act together in solidarity against austerity, against neo-liberal policies, against what to say and do with the failing state-owned enterprises that have been milked dry by looters and corrupt revolutionaries of yesteryear. 

Overcoming the subjective and objective factors that challenge and prevent the realisation of One Country – One Federation

It would appear that political alliances, historical political and ideological orientation, an apolitical posture by some, logos and colours remain a stumbling block to the unity of workers.

Furthermore, there is no shared understanding and perspective on how capital has restructured locally and internationally in the last five decades and therefore the old way of organising workers might be obsolete.

The absence of basic and advanced trade union education is not helping the rank and file to appreciate why a trade union exists, that a trade union can never become a Marxist organisation (even if it is inspired by Marxism).

The so-called Workers Parties or Socialist Parties or Communist Parties in South Africa appear incapable of helping with the unity of workers and getting the unorganised into trade unions because of the sectarian way in which they look at workers. 

In this regard, it becomes important to take guidance from Slovo’s essay: “Has Socialism Failed?”’:

“……. what doctrine of pre-Stalinism and pre- Mao Marxism gives a communist party (or any other party for that matter) the moral or political right to impose its hegemony or to maintain it in the face of popular rejection?”

Slovo goes on to say:

“We do not regard trade unions or the national movement as mere conduits for our policies. Nor do we attempt to advance our policy positions through intrigue or manipulation. Our relationship with these organisations is based on complete respect for their independence, integrity and inner democracy.”

It is thus a ‘cardinal sin’ that Communist, Socialist, Workers and Left parties would do everything in their power to manipulate trade unions through scheming, plotting, manoeuvring, conspiracy, trickery and deception. This is done to the point of causing serious rifts and splits from which trade unions are seldom able to recover. In my humble submission, a trade union can never be a political party and a political party can never be a trade union.

There is no doubt that capital is strong and resilient. Capital becomes even stronger when workers are divided. The trade union movement becomes weaker when workers are unable to set aside their differences and prejudices to form a united and organised bloc against capital and the State.

In its May 1989 National Congress, Numsa passed a resolution to suggest a solution of how Cosatu could champion the unity of workers and more particularly the implementation of Cosatu’s “One Country, One Federation resolution. Numsa said:

  1. As a way of consolidating emerging cooperation and as a stepping stone to realising our objective of one-country, one-federation, Cosatu should initiate talks with Nactu and Fedsal, with the aim of establishing a loose confederation of trade unions (Conftu).
  2. When negotiating with other federations on the formation of a confederation, Cosatu’s mandate will be:
  • To establish a loose confederation. 
  • While bringing together Cosatu, Nactu and Fedsal, the confederation will not take away the autonomy/independence of affiliated federations.
  • Such a confederation should be structured at national, inter-affiliate, regional, local levels, joint shop stewards levels. 
  • That one of the ways in which the confederation will work will be through annual worker summits at the beginning of each year. 
  • That the aim of these will be to work out an annual agenda for labour. 

A call for the formation of a Confederation of Trade Union Federation in South Africa

It would seem that the time has arrived to embark on a tactical approach to the unity of the organised and unorganised workers operating in the South African ‘labour market’. 

A tactical move at this time is for all trade union federations in South Africa and registered trade unions to consider convening a series of lekgotlas to talk about the possibility of forming a Confederation of Trade Union Federation in South Africa.

This would not be an easy task if one considers the fact that it took four long years of unity talks (1981 to 1985) to form Cosatu. It also took about two to three years to form Saftu.

What could such a Confederation of Trade Union Federation in South Africa look like?

Difficult as it might prove to be, a coming together of federations must consider the following as a stepping stone towards One Country-One Federation:

  • Each Federation retains its Constitution, logo and colours.
  • Each Federation accepts that the Confederation of a Trade Union Federation in South Africa should have its own Constitution, Principles and Policies.

In South Africa, we still have trade union veterans from the ranks of Sactu, Fosatu, Nactu, Fedusa, Cosatu and Saftu who could play a leading role in facilitating such discussions in a series of lekgotlas. It would be advisable that not a single political party or left political organ should be involved in such unity discussions.

Tactically, the establishment of a Confederation of Trade Union Federation in South Africa must be regarded as but the first step. A second step would be to have deep conversations about such things as:

  • The restructuring of capital and the State;
  • Relevance of One Industry, One Union;
  • A non-pouching approach to recruitment and a new way of getting unorganised workers into trade unions;
  • Whether centralised bargaining and plant-based bargaining can co-exist;
  • How Bargaining Councils and Statutory Councils could be reorganised; and
  • A new engagement strategy with capital and the State.

All of this could well look like a utopian approach to bring about the unity of workers but doing something is better than doing nothing, particularly when we know that Unions only represent 23% of workers in South Africa today. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Excuse me for this dim question: but why do workers need unity?

    From where I sit, it isn’t an us and them scenario: everyone, both labour and business should be working together towards a better South Africa within the frame work of well crafted labour law and institutions such as the the CCMA – which should exist solely to provide objective agnostic protection for all players.

    Truthfully all I see from unions is that they have a biased vested interest and they hold the country back from growth which would be to the benefit of all.

    But like I say, I’m probably being dim.

    • Dragan KostaKostic says:

      The working class need unity for its struggle with monopoly capital Monopoly capital are a bunch of money grabbing sociopaths that care for nothing except their own interests.

      Look at the history of South Africa. Capitalism was introduced to South Africa by the British especially Rhodes. This involved wars of conquest, land dispossession (1913 Land Act) and the introduction of wage slavery. Rhodes was not a racist he despised working people but supported the British policy of creating a native elite who would support British imperialism. The native elite generally welcomed such a policy at first for example Ghandi. The Afrikaners refused to work for slave wages (As reactionaries demand of the working class in every country today) also they feared economic competition from British Monopoly Capital. This is why Apartheid was invented.

      This involved massive state intervention in the economy and high taxes to support a welfare state for the whites. Big business was happy with this as the government oppressed the black working class and banned trade unions. However by the 1980s things were going badly the black working class was revolting and had forced the government to legalise trade unions. Big business then set about befriending the native elite who had become antagonistic to capitalism as result of the apartheid policy. Globalisation has destroyed the countries industrial base and the only way for the elite to make money today is by fraud and corruption .

      • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

        Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding but it appears you’re trying to drive the future from the past.

        I get the past and I get the injustices attached to them but my view is: where are we now, and what should we be implementing to move forward in the most constructive way.

        The things I do know:
        1. An US vs THEM scenario is an oversimplification of the world and its complexities today.
        2. US vs THEM can never have an optimal outcome for anyone. Working together is the only way.
        3. With well constructed laws and institutions it is quite possible to create a society in which everyone’s rights are protected without the need for unions.
        4. Unions are typically short sighted as it is in their direct interest to be so – as such their perspective almost invariably comes at the expense of the medium to long term for everyone, including their own workers. An analogy might be Gwede Mantashe saying “burn coal in abundance because it will create jobs for our people” – while neglecting to mention or consider that the approach will ultimately result in the demise of everyone, including the people he is trying to give jobs to.

        In a nutshell: Unions should go the way of the dodo (just like Mantashe) and be replaced by well constructed laws and institutions.

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