Is Bureaucracy killing COSATU?

by Nov 13, 2013Magazine

Bureaucracy is defined as management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures. The abuse of power by officials is a very old phenomenon in the labour movement worldwide. Bureaucratisation is seen in this article as a partial explanation of the current crisis in COSATU.

The bureaucratic elite

‘As workers, you gave power to the general secretary and killed worker control. When you did that, you tampered with the content and nature of the trade union movement.’

Spoken by a rank-and-file COSATU activist? Militant NUMSA shop steward? No! these are the words of ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, former general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

Of course Mantashe’s concern over worker control was not a call to action for the COSATU rank and files to recover the founding principles of COSATU. It was a factional intervention directed towards putting the boot into his former comrade, suspended COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

Perhaps, in the history of the South African labour movement, no single official did more to build an unaccountable bureaucracy of well-paid officials with privileges and a lifestyle light years removed from the conditions of your average worker than Gwede Mantashe. Through Cyril Ramaphosa and Mantashe’s influence it was organised that the Chamber of Mines would pay the salaries of NUM’s top officials. And not just any kind of salary, but some of the highest in the country.

In May 2012 the Mail & Guardian reported that the NUM general secretary, Frans Baleni, received a R1.4 million salary package. His basic monthly pay was revealed at the time to be R77 000. This puts him firmly in the top 1% of income earners in South Africa. And this is not all. His income was further boosted by an additional R360 000 for serving on the Board of the Development Bank of Southern Africa.

What about the NUM President, Senzeni Zokwana? After all, Mantashe was exhorting the presidents of the Union to assert their power over the officials in the interests of worker control. According to sources in NUM, the leadership of the union had decided that the general secretary and the president should earn similar amounts. It turns out, according to several sources, that for decades mining houses have paid the salaries of union bosses. Zokwana was paid by Anglo Gold Ashanti. The exact salary of Zokwana has not been revealed but it is estimated to be close to R1.5 million.

This should help him avoid any discomfort when being part of ANC and SACP executive meetings. He is a member of the ANC National Executive Committee and the SACP’s Politburo and Central Committee. His salary, while not the same as a cabinet minister (they earn in excess of R2 million) or the CEO of a major corporation – many of whom sit on the leading structures of these vehicles of the national democratic revolution – is not too shabby.

Problem of breaucratisation in the movement

But should worker leaders, union officials, shop-stewards and other officials linked to the workers’ movement earn the salaries and enjoy privileges that provides them with a lifestyle more in line with the top 1% of society than with their members?

The issue of the bureaucratisation of the labour movement is key to understanding the crisis in COSATU and the difficulties confronting the labour movement.

It is unfortunate that the problem of bureaucratisation is seldom recognised and hardly debated in the trade unions, except for point scoring and in opportunistic ways as Mantashe recently did.

Of course the crisis in NUM and its displacement by AMCU as a majority union on the major platinum mines led to some soul searching in COSATU and gave rise to the discussion of what COSATU terms social distancing. Under the problem of social distancing, a term- COSATU prefers to bureaucratisation, Vavi pointed out, ‘Different lifestyles and material realities are creating a leadership which is not fully in tune with what members are facing.’

This, however, is a massive understatement of the problem. The problem of a bureaucratic elite is a much greater problem and goes well beyond COSATU and the labour movement. When we try to understand why the change of leadership in the ANC from the aloof Mbeki to the populist Zuma has had no impact in shifting the class orientation of the ANC one needs to reckon not just with the influence of the new black bourgeoisie but with the conservatism of the ANC’s apparatus of full-time officials. This is equally true for the SACP, most political parties and helps explains the reformist conservatism of much of civil society with their full-time staff, that most times substitute for the grassroots constituencies they claim to work for.

Nevertheless, throughout the trade union movement the principles of worker control and democracy have been horribly eroded and distorted. Much like the state, the trade union has become a stepping-stone for self-advancement. The high levels of corruption are rooted in this individualised notion of self-advancement at the expense of the collective. This signals a bigger problem of political consciousness and activism in the labour movement.

Since the heady days of the combined struggle against apartheid and capitalism, the democratisation of the apartheid state has facilitated the incorporation of the labour movement into the state. It has tried with much success to incorporate the leadership of COSATU within many forums and committees for formulating policy and dialoguing with business while at the same ensuring that COSATU has very little say in policy at the end of the day.

However, trying to confront the problem contributed to a distancing of a different type. Unions like NUM that were shedding members or where there was internal strife rejected the interference. When COSATU does intervene in disputes surrounding corruption and unethical behaviour among an affiliate’s leadership, it often leads to a intensification of ‘faction’ fighting within a union as the leadership involved in this behaviour claim that such an intervention is principally ‘politically’ motivated. Reminiscent of the ANC – interventions often cause or intensify factionalism within COSATU.

Consolidation of a bureaucratic elite

It is incontestable that the development of mass trade union organisation is inconceivable without an apparatus of full-timers and functionaries. But with the development of this apparatus there is the risk that working-class organisations will become divided between layers exercising different functions. Specialisation can result in a growing monopoly of knowledge, information and consequently power. Soon officials are taking decisions on behalf of their members and the democracy and power of ordinary members is subverted and usurped by this layer of paid officials.

This layer is often characterised by 1) higher pay (in the case of top leaders, much higher) and better conditions than the workers they represent; 2) the separation of their conditions from those of their members, e.g. a union official who gives away a public holiday in negotiations does not thereby lose his/her holiday; 3) a working life where he/she spends more time talking to management than to the shop floor; 4) a tendency to view disputes not as struggles to be won but as problems to be solved.

At the same time the union officials remain dependent on the existence of the union and its membership to pay their wages, and are therefore subject to pressure from below. If the union officials openly abandoned all attempt to represent their members, the members would either remove the officials or leave the union; either way the officials would be quite compromised and sometimes even out of a job.

Their material interest, without bribery and regardless of ideology, is to maintain the balance between the employers and the workers.

In spite of the near universal phenomena of the bureaucratisation of the labour movement there is nothing inevitable about this phenomena and it can be countered. The very process of building mass organisations of the working class creates counter tendencies where workers are able to educate themselves, gain greater knowledge of the workings of society and through the struggles they wage regain their dignity. This creates the basis for ensuring their control over the officials they elect to represent themselves.

Bureaucratisation and the COSATU crisis

The effects of over bureaucratisation and separation from the interests of the rank and file was most clearly seen on the mines and specifically in the mass strike of 2012. As platinum mineworkers revolted against their representatives at NUM who were both unwilling and unable to advance their demands. Behind that was co-option by management through providing all sorts of privileges and perks and in many cases permanent shop stewards and union officials became de facto HR managers for the company.

Yet, it is not as if this has been arrested by AMCU. We know of a case of a worker leader at AMPLATS who wished to refuse the additional income to his wage for being made a permanent shop steward. Enormous pressure has being put on him by fellow permanent shop stewards and union officials not to buck the system. They do not wish to be exposed in front of the general membership. Moreover, AMCU has not rejected any of the perks that NUM had obtained and on the contrary is pushing for even more. This process has gained momentum, especially after AMCU successfully intervened to shut down the democratic worker committees that led the strike.

The problem of the bureaucratisation of COSATU is not just a problem of a layer of officials and functionaries whose material reality separates them from the bulk of the union’s members. It goes much deeper. The bureaucracy is self-preserving. They essentially subordinate the struggle for the radical transformation of society to the defence of those gains already achieved. The COSATU bureaucracy is eager to maintain the access to the policy makers in government, in the tri-partite institutions from where the improvement in the conditions of the working class can be negotiated. A new frame of mind emerges. The pros and cons of every new action now come to be weighed and balanced: might not the projected move forward, instead of achieving something new, result in the loss of what has already been gained.

It is expressed in a reluctance to undertake a militant and systematic fight against labour brokering, the NDP, for a living wage etc., lest it destabilises and undermines the ANC government. This is considered as being oppositional. All new struggles have to be subordinated to the defence of the ANC.

Here lies the rub. As Vavi became more ‘oppositional’ and destabilised the ruling alliance by calling into contention the legitimacy of the Zuma administration, his leadership had to be countered. The fight to remove Vavi was intensified when he stood against leading COSATU officials being represented on the ANC NEC. It is likely that he understood the impossibility of fighting primarily for workers’ interests while being in the highest ranks of the ANC, as one puts ANC priorities before workers.

The crisis in COSATU is not just going to be resolved by voting a different leadership. The COSATU Special Congress (when it goes ahead) must confront the problems of the loss of worker control at all levels of the union to a bureaucratic elite. Worker leaders need to be subject to mandate, the right of recall and must not be elevated by salaries and perks above the position of those they serve. A good start would be made if the full salary packages of union officials were made public and a discussion organised on what is acceptable pay for full-time officials. Of course this is not an easy problem to resolve given the distortions of the South African labour market where skills are scarce and demand huge rewards.

This inevitably also involves confronting the role of investment companies with their money and corrupting tendencies. Perhaps more importantly than all of this is the reconquering of the independence of the trade unions from collaboration with the employers and the state. In this regard the separation of COSATU from the ANC becomes extremely urgent!

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