Is it indeed colder outside the ANC tripartite alliance?
South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) boss Zwelinzima Vavi says recent events, such as the Congress of SA Trade Unions’ (Cosatu) march against public sector retrenchments yesterday, show the opposite is true.
While there was a mostly bused-in crowd of about 400 supporters at the march, compared to the thousands who participated in the Saftu march against the national minimum wage last year, Vavi was reluctant to make any comment on the success of the recent event.
But he denounced the fragmentation of unions, saying they were better off working with people within and outside the alliance.
“As Saftu, we support those demands, they are legitimate. But we wish people could understand that trade union fragmentation does not serve the agenda of the workers,” said Vavi.
“By that I mean whether it is within Saftu or other organisations like Cosatu, Nactu (National Council of Trade Unions) and Fedusa (Federation of Unions of SA), if you are isolated as a movement you will never achieve anything.
“We have to learn that the only way movements will progress is if they work with the unemployed and the working class masses.
“Whether you have chosen to work within this or that alliance, you will want to work with organisations outside of it.
“That is why Saftu has chosen to be independent and that is why we are better able to reach more people.”
Fears of mass retrenchments due to the restructuring of cash-strapped state-owned entities were exacerbated this week by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that Eskom would be split into three companies.
Unions panicked that tens of thousands of jobs would be lost as the spectre of privatisation loomed.
Rhodes University professor and labour and sociology expert Lucien van der Walt said Vavi had a point about the importance of unity among unions, but that those aligned with political parties were as important as those that were not.
Van der Walt added that unions did not need political parties to bring about change.
“Unions are the most important force at the moment for real changes that reach ordinary people. Right across the continent, unions have been the standard-bearer of change,” he said.
“And both those within and those outside the alliance are equally important. They represent two different pressure points on government, as we have seen now.
“We see Cosatu trying to shake up the budget and Saftu doing the same thing last year and now going after Eskom.
“Both are critical in different ways to raise the popular voice. Outside of the churches, they are the single biggest civil society organisations.
“In terms of organisations with a life beyond a certain moment, unions are pretty much it in South Africa.”