Columns 5.5.2017 06:26 am

Cosatu – undone by its own hand

Cosatu – undone by its own hand

The trade union federation we currently know is breathing its last.

If what unfolded on May 1 in Bloemfontein at what was supposed to be Cosatu’s main event for Workers Day didn’t happen, this column would soon be reduced to writing about my love for jazz and the best Islay whiskies.

For some it was a good moment; for others it was sign of the deep crisis within the alliance. For Cosatu it was the day of reckoning: the arrival of its doomsday. It’s played the last scene badly. The top-six Cosatu leaders – president Sdumo Dlamini, Tyotyo James, Zingiswa Losi, Bheki Ntshalintshali, Solly Phetoe and Freda Oosthuysen (Dlamini and Losi are known supporters of president Jacob Zuma) – will forever be known as the leaders under which the May Day main event did not happen.

The May Day events showed that Cosatu no longer has control or power over its provinces. Control lies with public sector unions – and they want Cosatu’s power centralised between them). There is a possibility of a split within Cosatu if the dominant unions (Nehawu, Sadtu and Samwu) band together and take control. It’s doubtful that smaller unions such as CWU will stay in Cosatu for long. As such, this might be the last time we see the top-six Cosatu leaders stemming from the different unions.

The eras of Zwelinzima Vavi and Dlamini bequeathed to us a period that will be known as the beginning of the end – for they are responsible for driving the dagger deep into Cosatu’s heart, before the fatal blow.

Many commentators agree that after a few weeks of turmoil inside Cosatu – and a year of its confusing stance before and after the signing of National Minimum Wage accord – a new era has begun. The Cosatu we know is breathing its last breath.

Next year, when it elects new leaders, the newcomers will go out of their way to establish themselves as different from the outgoing leaders. They will do this by either purging any remaining group that is perceived as loyal to the old leaders; changing Cosatu’s stance within the alliance by submitting to the ANC dominance; or become the opposite in trying to project its independence.

The country’s organised labour has always carried immense power and influence behind their voice – Cosatu’s being the loudest. One can even go as far as saying that, up until the past six years the federation was a powerful organisation that straddled the social issues affecting its members while constantly in the face of business and at the same time camping in the corridors of government power through its alliance to the ruling party.

It was, for that period, commanding attention and was the leader of all labour. It had the seat at every Nedlac meeting that determined the direction the country’s economic policy was taking. It once held kings and queens.

Business, whether it liked it or not, had to listen to this roaring voice that could mobilise thousands and march if it felt it was not loud enough. Remember the March 7 and April 30 2012 national marches against e-tolls? Hundreds of thousands marched throughout the country – civil society and ordinary citizens even joined in. I remember – I was in the Johannesburg march.

Ironically, I recall that mass action protest being the last time Cosatu managed to mobilise its members to come out in such large numbers. Since then, there hasn’t been any Cosatu march that topped that turnout. In hindsight, perhaps its subsequent inability to pull its members out in great numbers in protestation or on strike, was sign of its waning power to mobilise and therefore indicated a fading strength.

History is a cruel reminder and it picks its moments, as if to show off. Leading to the 52nd National ANC Conference in Polokwane, in 2007, some leaders within the SACP and Cosatu began murmurings about former president Thabo Mbeki’s unseen hand that was trying to destroy the alliance. He was spoken of in workers’ gatherings as the enemy of the workers and a man who could undo the victories that Cosatu, through the alliance, had achieved.

The past six years in Cosatu’s timeline have proved that conspiracy to be a lie and time has even gone a step further, in revealing whom Cosatu should have kept its eyes on.

Here again is the irony: the man they thought would unify the alliance has broken it. Ever the strategic chess player, he found a way to neutralise both Cosatu and the SACP.

He saw firsthand what they were capable of when they banded together with his supporters to get him the throne. He was not going to let that happen to him. In his presidency of the ANC, Zuma has completely eroded the power of Cosatu, thus rendering it beholden to the ANC and reducing the SACP to a shadow of what it once was.

But this is not why I write. In the past few months, the politics of South Africa’s labour movements, particularly Cosatu, have shown us two things:

  • Advancing workers’ interests is no longer the focus. This is evident in the organisation’s inability to respond to challenges faced by workers, such as retrenchments, casualisation and the continued use of labour brokers.
  • Just like its alliance partner the ANC, it too has grown too comfortable, resting on the laurels of its past achievements and the sentimentality of who it is. Hence it no longer sees the plight of its members and has grown deaf to their pleas.

Like waves against a rock, it is gnawing at itself. Its preoccupation with the ANC leadership battle has reached a point where the federation is tearing itself apart. Individually, Cosatu’s leaders are trying to secure their future. Some have gone to great lengths to show Zuma they have his back; others used May Day to reveal where they stand in the ANC leadership battle. Collectively they avoid taking responsibility and prefer finger pointing.

At a moment when respect for members and a fear of their reproach no longer holds the ambitions of dangerous individual leaders at bay, Dlamini and his five comrades (it would be wrong to single him out alone) are playing lords: total disrespectful, self-serving leaders who elevated their egos above the workers’ interests. How else can anyone justify ignoring the workers’ call?

It is against this disrespect and arrogance from their leaders that Cosatu members were stamping their feet and shouting ‘boo!’

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