With a strong Cosatu, unionised workers have bargaining power and the sea of red has brought many an industry to its knees as it demanded better working conditions for its members.
Sadly, where there is power there is contestation – and Cosatu itself has been brought to its knees. The federation has so often spoken of enemy forces seeking to undermine the working-class struggle, but such forces need not do a thing.
Cosatu is tearing itself up and those suffering are not (former general secretary) Zwelinzima Vavi or the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers of SA, but the very working class that has given Cosatu a mandate.
Any worker – desperate to have his contract made permanent, desperate to earn more than peanuts, desperate to get benefits for his family – watching the events at the special national congress would have been deeply disappointed.
None of his needs drew the same ire and passion as the protracted debacle around alliances and cliques that have split Cosatu. “An injury to one is an injury to all” is a Cosatu motto. In that case, the entire movement is injured and its legitimacy as a true fighter for workers’ rights is being tested.
ANC national chairperson Baleka Mbete has said the party is disturbed by the infighting. It should be. But what goes around, comes around and when an ANC faction needed Jacob Zuma to be lobbied and it relied on the Zuma yes-men of the time to fight that political battle, the precedent was set: factions distract the organisation from its mandate.
When Zuma swept to power, his faction pumped their chests at the defeated Mbeki-ites. Sdumo Dlamini’s Cosatu faction, however large its majority, will pump their chests and declare no one is bigger than the movement, but it would be advised to remember no one would be dressed in red if it weren’t for the paying worker. And if that worker’s interests suffer at the expense of politics his membership is no longer assured as it once was.