A new Cosatu a new future?

by Mar 28, 2014Magazine

The probable expulsion of Numsa from Cosatu marks the beginning of a profound re-organisation and possible renewal of the workers’ movement. The most likely outcome will be the emergence of a new federation organised around Numsa, along with the eight other unions that have campaigned for a Cosatu Special Congress, and breakaway sections or regions of those unions still in support of the current Cosatu leadership.

This parting of the ways will be preceded by court battles as both sides fight over the right to the name, heritage and resources of Cosatu. Both sides know very well that the name ‘Cosatu’ has a powerful resonance among all sections of workers. Nevertheless, at the end of the process there will be a new federation that will not just involve sections of Cosatu but might affect other federations such as Nactu, Fedusa and others. Issues that kept these federations apart will fall to the wayside and new questions will have to be confronted.

The current divisions in the labour movement are rooted in several key strategic questions that confront both labour and the broader workers’ movement and thus cannot be reduced to just the issue of the Alliance and the relationship with the ANC.

The central political question that Numsa and other unions have been fighting over is key to this process. As we have indicated in previous Amandla! editorials and articles, Vavi’s suspension and the public attacks on him were carried out by forces in the ANC and SACP in order to mute criticism of the ANC government. It was the Zuma government’s continuity with neoliberalism and the embrace of cronyism that saw Cosatu under Vavi’s leadership not only become a harsh critic of government, but even explore alternative alliances with progressive forces. The 2010 Cosatu civil society conference was an early case in point. The more critical Cosatu became, the more leading forces in the SACP mobilised to transform it into a labour desk of the Alliance. Both the initial attacks on Vavi and his eventual suspension have to be located within this context. Often commentators overlook the centrality of Cosatu’s political independence as being at the heart of the current divisions in the Federation.

The question to ask is, why now? Why, almost 20 years after the 1994 negotiated settlement, is there another fight taking place over Cosatu’s independence? The Marikana massacre proved to be the turning point. The meanings of Marikana are manifold but for millions of ordinary South Africans the co-option of the ANC and other forces within the Alliance to the interests of capital, especially mining capital, became starkly apparent during and after that event.

The Marikana massacre, moreover, was a major source of divisions in Cosatu. The Cosatu leadership and even Vavi initially chose to defend the union bureaucracy at the expense of rank-and-file NUM members who had revolted against both extreme exploitation on the mines and NUM’s leadership, who refused to represent the interests of its poorest paid members. In a flash, key founding principles of the Federation were brought to the fore, primarily worker control and democracy.

The problem that Vavi had put on the Cosatu agenda was dubbed ‘social distancing’ – or, more precisely, the consolidation of a bureaucratic layer that ran the labour movement in support of its own material interests that had developed in the comfort of the Alliance, with a ruling party able to dispense patronage on a wide scale.

Political support for the ANC went hand in hand with privileges, financial benefits and political advancement, which in turn required the subduing of worker militancy and the political subordination of the trade union movement. Marikana brought home the problem of a bureaucratic leadership out of touch with its members, and not just for NUM but for all unions.

The possible new federation will have to confront a number of critical strategic issues if the bloody lessons of Marikana are to be fully recognised and acted on. Foremost among these are:

  • the informalisation of large sections of the labour force, including the use of labour brokers;
  • the mobility of global capital and the consequent race to the bottom for labour;
  • the destructive and divisive role of trade union investment companies, with a natural tendency towards co-option and moderation;
  • the return of to the core principles of worker democracy and solidarity;
  • the building of new alliances with social movements and the unemployed;
  • the necessity of addressing the gap between the salary and perks of trade union officials and union members.

The Numsa Special Congress was particularly special in its recognition of many of the issues listed above. As other articles attest it was not just the resolution to call for the breaking of the Tripartite Alliance and the rejection of the ANC in the 2014 elections that was path breaking. Especially important for the purposes renewing the trade union movement were resolutions taken on the Marikana massacre, developing a programme of mass action to challenge neoliberalism, organising across the value chain to challenge capital’s strategy of outsourcing and fragmenting the workplace, and adopting a service charter to address the threat of bureaucratism.

As the Numsa leadership and Vavi would readily agree, the fate of the new federation, whatever its name might be, is far too important to be left in their hands. The rank and file of Numsa and its allies through its elected shop stewards must breathe their lives, aspirations and dreams into the new federation. The workers’ movement stands on the brink of a new beginning. The mistakes of the past must be fully discussed, debated and the lessons learnt in a way that allows for a united working class to once again open the path for socialism. These mistakes include the role Cosatu played in bringing Zuma to power.

However, this new movement will require a different type of socialism and socialist movement to those that marked much of the twentieth century. It will have to be a movement that is liberating, profoundly democratic rather than authoritarian; unconstrained by the archaic language of Marxism-Leninism that still dominates much of the left in South Africa; capable of inspiring all progressive sectors of society in its emancipatory vision. It must be a movement in which the unemployed, organised workers, women, environmentalists, gays and lesbians all find the promise of freedom from oppression and the means to directly govern themselves and society. It must explicitly incorporate the need to protect nature from capitalism’s predatory footprint. It must be able to forge a strategy and organisational form capable of responding to the changing form of capitalism, have an international vision and link up with movements in Southern Africa and the world. It must be able to provide the leadership that our country is so sorely missing.

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