When Zuma received his de facto Presidential reelection at Mangaung, he faced similar circumstances but has so far done the opposite. He filled important posts with neoliberals and business moguls, forced his ministers to bend a knee to a policy program that demands wage-compression, oversaw a budget designed to appease ratings-agencies and discarded even the most modest demands of his labour allies by allowing the youth wage subsidy. “There may be no Zuma moment,” said Vavi, reading the signs.
That comment was only the latest in a long string, convincing his opponents that the union leader has to be gone by the time the election roadshow rolls around next year. A few weeks later and COSATU went to its Collective Bargaining and Organizing Conference, with a house divided.
Amandla! has tried to contextualize the fractures: in the final analysis they emerge because one section of the leadership is choosing to respond forthrightly to the worsening conditions facing COSATU members and their changing political aspirations, whilst the other clings to privilege and political loyalty. They are inseparable from the general crisis facing the working class.
What will it take for COSATU to reverse this and win a ‘Lula Moment’ in South Africa?
Around the transition period an intense debate erupted on whether the fortunes of the working class would be better served by a deepening of the class struggle or agreeing to a ‘social contract’ with new ANC government. Proponents of the former position lost the debate but history, it seems, has provided their vindication.
At the time they argued that redirecting the struggle from the street and factory floor to the boardroom and adopting a “political corporatist” strategy would undermine the powerful traditions of workplace democracy and worker control that were forged in the face of Apartheid repression. Union officials would face an irresistible pressure to centralize power in their hands at the expense of the self-activity of workers; eventually functioning as ‘joint managers of capitalism’.
By all indications worker participation has weakened in COSATU. Fewer members attend meetings and with less regularity. Shop-steward elections are postponed for long periods, sometimes many years. The gulfs are greatest between national leadership and the rank and file of the federation: most in COSATU have never even heard of NEDLAC, the primary organ of corporatism in SA, and have no knowledge of the decisions taken in their name.
COSATUs Tripartite Alliance was to be more than merely conjunctural – the federation encouraged its activists to drive the implementation of its ‘common program’, the RDP, by taking up positions in the ANC and government. It quickly became clear however, that the Washington-Consensus had replaced the Freedom Charter as the guiding light of ANC tops. COSATU was to be disappointed. Congress after congress of the Federation through the 90s and early 00s decried the malfunctioning institutions of the Alliance and the ANCs embrace of neoliberalism, but confusingly for most, reaffirmed a faith in the ‘working-class bias’ of the party and the possibility of ‘contesting the space’ from within.
It seems almost logically inconsistent to have expected COSATU leaders in this situation to have represented workers, from who’s lived realities they grew increasingly removed. A bureaucratic caste grew fat and complacent off internal union funds and the politics of compromise, encouraged by lucrative career paths offered by their closeness to government and the ruling party.
As a result, successive ANC administrations succeeded in undermining labour and erecting the structures of trickle-down economics, assured that resistance from organized workers would be episodic or merely rhetorical. The erosion of worker control stripped the union of the militancy and flexibility needed to respond effectively to the assault of informalization and precariousness. Divisions grew at every level.
The bureaucratism and co-option of the last decades and the need to constantly explain an Alliance that has so far yielded nothing has led to no-end of ideological confusion and constricted open debate. But COSATU has a long and proud heritage of struggle. Frank but challenging answers could not be prevented from surfacing in the debate in the final declaration of the conference: back to the workers!
Yet these most recent resolutions form part of a long literature in which lucid strategies for renewal sit alongside repetitions of the same political errors. There will be no ‘organizational fix’ for these challenges and no solutions without a fight.
To whatever extent the victories can be won within the Alliance, it is now clear that they will only come insofar as workers have independent and democratically accountable organization. Fighting back against precariousness will require creative new models of organization and greater linkages with the movements of the unemployed. And ultimately, leading a sustained and united mobilization for wage-led growth on a path to socialism will require a programmatic militancy that seems hard to imagine within the current political frame. New waters must be tested.
But these tasks will only be met with extreme hostility from sections of the leadership who owe their social position to a party elite that has now openly espoused its “class-bias” towards finance and mining capital through the NDP. They will do everything to oppose efforts to place workers back in control of the national organs of the federation and will be joined by elements in the bureaucracy protecting petty privilege.
Despite the rot, the hope for direct democracy remain alight – surveys suggest that most workers believe that shop-stewards must be directly accountable and subject to recall by workers, and that these methods must ground the federation as a whole. Marikana, De Doorns and a growing body of anecdotal and scholarly evidence suggest that there is a large and growing appetite for a change amongst COSATU shop-stewards and the rank and file.
An urgent first task for those seeking to rebuild a fighting federation is to open the space for continued debate, in which the voice of workers must sound loudest. Perhaps the time has come for a Workers’ Charter.