South African labour politics has become dominated and tainted by the cult of the personality, deluded communists and power-hungry individuals. A fortnight ago in this article entitled ‘A brave new federation’, I argued that trade unions continue to hope, or at least assert in public, that they are still relevant and necessary players in the economy.
The world of work is changing faster than ever; this reality is a clear and present challenge not only for companies, but also for the millions of working and unemployed people in South Africa.
In this column I opine that at a deeper level, a new federation is needed, especially one that will claim to be an independent labour movement.
Although the existing federations – namely the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) – may appear not to be affected by these developments, rest assured they are. Away from the public eye they are worried.
A new federation is bound to have far-reaching implications for political development, as it may help in the emergence of stronger civil society organisations and a broader-based opposition.
That it will have clout is a given. Firstly, the already more than 300 000-strong Numsa (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) is no longer bound by the ‘one industry, one union’ rule. News emerging from the transport sector is that Numsa has already made significant inroads into Transnet, which operates in an industry dominated by the Cosatu-affiliated South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu).
In other words, the scale of reach of this federation is unprecedented, with access to workers from every sector – with the exception of the public sector, where Cosatu is still dominant.
Secondly, going against the confirmed trend of declining union membership, labour and union activism will be on the rise once the new federation is launched. Furthermore, we’ve seen how, at times, some of labour’s actions also advance a social agenda that coincides to a large degree with that of the unemployed.
What do I mean?
The more this new federation focuses on working class needs, (for example better living conditions and basic services), the more likely it is to gain support from those who are unorganised and unemployed.
The disquiet and continued murmuring from workers at trade union level, even when they gathered at the last congress, was about some of their leaders “trading them off” because of their determination to drive individual political aspirations before tackling the bread-and-butter demands.
It is here that workers’ needs contrast with those of their leaders. It’s therefore no coincidence that many of the workers who have to repress their voice might find the new home liberating.
Perhaps most dramatic of all will be the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) deciding to make this new federation home. A leadership of Jimmy Gama, Karl Cloete, Irvin Jim, Joseph Mathunjwa and Zwelinzima Vavi is one that can’t be ignored. Whether you’re their competitor, government or business.
Do not be under any illusion: a new workers’ federation is bound to have an impact on the rest of the labour market, especially if it accounts for a large number of workers in critical sectors. How severe that direct effect will be depends, obviously enough, on how aggressively new members are recruited.
The first hurdle is whether workers will be truly unified, or if this will be an organisation formed by grievers who bemoan the expulsion of Numsa and one Vavi.
But this is not just about labour, it is also about politics. Both philosophers Marcus Tullius Cicero and Michel de Montaigne indicate that friends, particularly friends with similar political affiliations, should expect to be used and to use in their turn.
In the past we’ve seen how lethal a combination the ‘aggrieved’ and ‘desires of ambitious men’ can be when unified by a common enemy. Once that enemy is out of the way, and there are no ties that bind, they begin to unravel. Herein lies the greatest challenge for this new federation – will the cult of personality dominate or will focus be given to much bigger issues?
Time will tell.
The success of the political tenure of the new workers’ federation will depend on two things: either (i) it seeks the seat at the table enmeshed in national social pacts, or (ii) it rebuilds itself as a social movement dedicated to combating the wider grievances about neoliberal economic policies, corruption and government accountability that are central concerns of potential members, both old and new.
I am by no means saying this new federation will be the much-awaited Messiah for the workers. After all, they must first define an effective strategy of influencing broader socio-economic policies in favour of their working class base – a task that has defeated even the old most experienced of labour movements.
As one worker commented at the recent Mining Indaba, “we are waiting to see if they’re coming with an old but remixed song”.
“And then what,” I said.
“Then we the workers will make ours,” he said.