Till death do us part? The future of COSATU

by Nov 13, 2013Magazine

For the leadership of the ANC and SACP an independent and militant worker controlled and independent trade union federation is too dreadful to contemplate– especially as we approach the 2014 national and provincial elections. What if COSATU refused to campaign for or call on it supporters to vote ANC? Even worse, what if an independent COSATU launched a workers’ party to take forward the political interest of its members?

Independent trade unionism

That would take us back to the 1980s before the SACP enjoyed the influence it now has in COSATU. The trade union left, both workerists and Marxists of different hues, held leading positions in the main industrial unions and used this position to keep COSATU independent of the main liberation forces, even staying out of the United Democratic Front. Here is not the time or place to comment on the lack of political wisdom of this position, although given the likely debates concerning the future political direction of independent trade unionism it would be very fruitful for trade union activists to revisit some of these debates – sooner rather than later.

The stakes in those days were quite high. A radical independent trade union movement stood in the way of the ANC becoming hegemonic in the broader and especially internally based grassroots components of the liberation struggle.

Today, the stakes are higher. The ANC’s position as ruling party could be undermined. A COSATU split from the Alliance could have major consequences for the ANC in retaining its big electoral dominance in parliament as well as in the provinces. Already, Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters threatens to tear substantial youth and disgruntled sectors’ support away from the ANC.

This is dawning on several ANC and SACP officials. Thulas Nxesi, Minister of Public Works and former general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) is the latest to warn on the ramifications of a divided COSATU for the ANC.

‘COSATU is one of the strongest and most organised within the alliance. We need COSATU and most of COSATU members are also ANC members. Those divisions might even overflow into our own structures, hence the ANC continues and the SACP to appeal for unity, to say the issues must be thrashed inside.’

In his secretariat report to the recent Alliance Summit, Gwede Mantashe warned:

‘The current infighting in COSATU is going to have a more serious impact than the Cope breakaway.’

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) can be considered the first split to the left of the ANC. This in spite of the stench of corruption and cronyism that surrounds some of its leading members – not least Malema. It is waiting in the wings to feed off a COSATU implosion.

A worst-case scenario for the ANC and SACP would be a NUMSA-led COSATU linking up with the EFF and then joined by other left forces such as the Democratic Left Front (DLF) and the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) to form a left opposition to the ANC and SACP. Should such a formation take credible and strong positions on the many urgent issues confronting the country such as unemployment, corruption, education, health and housing, considerable support amongst various social movements and broader civil society could converge into something that would resemble the early days of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT).

A realistic scenario?

But is this a likely scenario? How much support is there for such an option in NUMSA and the other COSATU affiliates that demanded a special congress to resolve the leadership issue? Among COSATU shop stewards and rank-and-file members is there any appetite for a COSATU that is independent of the Alliance? It is of course impossible to really know without conducting extensive surveys at different levels in COSATU. It is also crucially dependent on what the leaders of these forces actually promote among its members. What the mass of unemployed youth and what workers think is not carved in stone. The stance of NUMSA leaders will of course be crucial. Things may become clearer as we move to a special Congress, which COSATU President Sdumo Dlamini has stated he is committed to calling.

The ANC is now the ruling party. It is managing a capitalist state that has failed to fulfill the hopes and aspirations, not just of the liberation struggle as codified in the Freedom Charter, but of millions of poor South whose standards of living have been visibly falling. Twenty years since the end of apartheid the pretence that the ANC can deliver a better life for all is being shattered on many fronts, not least for decent work and a living wage.

There are ruptures in support for the ANC within working-class communities. This is evidenced in some of the service-delivery protests, which show signs of moving from spontaneous ‘anarchic’ protest to organised resistance and a rejection of the ANC. In the 2011 local government elections a number of councillors were elected in opposition to the ANC in places like Soweto, Moutse and Balfour, to just name a few, by working-class constituencies that would have been expected to be ANC strongholds.

More significantly the 2012 strike wave that hit the mining sector and saw a jettisoning of the ANC-supporting NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) has also eroded support for the ANC and opened a space for populist and left-wing politics. Moreover the Marikana massacre and subsequent repression of mineworkers in the platinum belt has fuelled great anger at Zuma’s ANC.

AMCU, the apolitical off-shoot from NUM, has been the immediate beneficiary of NUM’s implosion on the platinum belt. Joseph Mathunjwa, the charismatic leader of AMCU, has decried the political alignment of unions. According to him, political involvement only leads to division and the failure to take up the bread and butter issues of workers. But for all the AMCU’s president’s popularity among platinum miners, there exists strong sentiment amongst its leading shop stewards in Rustenburg and other parts of the North West and Limpopo for a specifically workers’, if not mineworkers’, political party.

Eventually, it might even become clear to the AMCU leadership that trade unionism alone will not win the demand for drastic increases in wages. The R12 500 demand is simply too large to be an apolitical one when it challenges the bourgeoisie’s attempt to construct a consensus for wage suppression: It is an axe swung by workers at the root of South African inequality. It is a call for a major change in the mining industry, and, with that, also the economy of the country. The labour movement needs the backing of a government which doesn’t fear to break politically with the chamber of mines. But such a transformation of South African politics will not be led by the ANC, with many leaders already having a stake in super-exploitation and labour broking. The bitter truth is that neoliberalism now has a social base in the ANC. Can a new workers’ party take that step into the unknown of socialist politics? That is the hope that looms just outside the field of vision.

At any rate this is the space and possible logic the EFF is wading into. Surveys among youth suggest the EFF could attract significant support amongst this layer. Disillusionment amongst township youth runs high. Of the unemployed, nearly 70% per cent are below 35 years. The failing education system breeds a sense of hopelessness and disillusionment among many young people for which a radical anti-establishment type of politics could act as a pole of attraction.

By launching the EFF at Marikana in front of an estimated 15 000–20 000 supporters, Malema is making clear that all disgruntled forces in the country are his target, not least disgruntled mineworkers.

Disgruntled workers

Closer to home for COSATU has been several long and hard strikes that contain within them not just demands for better wages and working conditions but expressions of anger and frustration with the continuity of grinding poverty at work. Research conducted by the AIDC has shown that wages for the majority of workers outside of supervisory or management position has remained stagnant since the end of apartheid. The declining wage share in the national income is a further indication of how the working class has gained much less than their expectations of post-apartheid SA.

The militancy and anger in the ongoing strike wave are clear indications that workers are conscious of widening inequality as well as the obscene profits being made by their bosses. This is reinforced by several studies that indicate South Africa’s top companies are among the most profitable in the world. There is a growing impatience among workers who accuse their leaders – whether inside COSATU or the ANC – of not doing enough to improve their lives.

Public versus private unions?

Where there have been wage gains these have been in the more professionalised parts of the public sector. Civil servants, qualified teachers and nurses have seen improvements in their wages, pensions and housing allowances. And while it is too simplistic to understand the divisions in COSATU as running down the lines of public versus private sector unions, the main affiliates opposed to Vavi and his outspoken criticism of the ANC government have been NEHAWU, SADTU and POPCRU, who together form the core of the public sector.

Mindful of the danger of generalising, the leaders of these unions tend to be drawn from management structures in the public sector and have lifestyles quite separate from most worker leaders in the private sector. They also tend to be the strongest supporters of the ANC and are reluctant for COSATU to be too critical of the ANC government.

Even so, there is evidence of substantial support amongst the rank and file members of the public sector unions for Vavi and the positions he puts forward. How strong this support is remains to be seen. Even more importantly for those in support of Vavi and a more independent COSATU: will the union officials allow opposition voices the space to articulate, mobilise and ultimately express it in a vote at COSATU’s Special Congress against their own leaders?

Equally, many of the leaders of the nine affiliates that have called for a Special Congress to decide on the future of the suspended general secretary remain strong supporters of the ANC. Their criticism of the ANC and government is at the level of the Party’s failure to implement the resolutions of the Polokwane Conference and endorsement of the NDP, failure to ban labour brokers and now the introduction of e-tolls. Many still believe, as do many of their members, that the ANC is the only alternative to the right-wing opposition parties and represents the best possibility for securing pro-working-class policies.

This idea goes hand-in-hand with the sentiment that were they to leave the ANC ‘you will have an ANC that will grow more and more conservative and once it is more conservative, it will be brutal on the working class.’ (Gwede Mantashe, speaking at the POPCRU Political School, August 2013)

Will this fear, which only partially explains the continued support of sections of COSATU for the ANC (other factors include tradition, patronage, bureaucratic conservatism), be sufficient to guarantee the unity of COSATU and the Alliance?

Disillusionment with the SACP

Malema once said his blood was black, green and gold but now it would seem it is firmly red. Sentiment among the COSATU leadership may be changing as a number of former trade union leaders and SACP members have become disillusioned with the SACP. They have criticised the Party for giving up its independence for positions in the ANC government. At the forefront of this criticism has been NUMSA, who slammed SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande for hanging on to the position of full-time general secretary of the SACP while accepting a cabinet position in Zuma’s government. In this, NUMSA was following Vavi, who had made similar criticisms regarding the role of the SACP after its leading members arrived in government. SAMWU and FAWU have also raised similar concerns.

More recently NUMSA has been in a sharp polemic with SACP ideologue Jeremy Cronin, accusing him of putting himself forward as the Pope of Marxism, while in fact becoming an apologist for the government’s neoliberal positions. The initial endorsement for the National Development Plan by the SACP was also a bone of contention among several trade union leaders that identified the NDP as being in continuity with GEAR and even having its origins in the policies of the DA.

Yet, it is the factional intervention of the SACP in the leadership battles in COSATU that has done the most to drive a wedge between several COSATU leaders and the party. The drive to get rid of Vavi at the last COSATU Congress was perceived as being orchestrated from the SACP’s Politburo, where Dlamini (COSATU president), Baleni (NUM general secretary), Zokwana (NUM president) and Majola (NEHAWU general secretary) find common cause with Nzimande, Mantashe and Cronin. The very same COSATU leaders were elected to the ANC’s NEC at the ANC’s 2012 Mangaung conference for their loyalty to the Alliance.

Several COSATU leaders only became active in the ANC through their membership of the SACP or remained in the ANC in spite of their misgivings because of being disciplined members of the party. As they become increasingly disillusioned with the SACP it becomes even less compelling to continue to support the ANC. It is this estrangement from the SACP leadership that is giving rise to a discussion on the need for a new political party that can represent workers’ interests.

Already Irvin Jim, NUMSA general secretary, SADTU’s suspended president Thobile Ntola and Katishi Masemola have at various moments expressed the need for the unions to consider building an alternative to the SACP.

Yet support for the ANC and President Zuma runs high in COSATU. According to the Community Agency for Social Equity survey of 2 052 stewards, which was made controversial through its delayed publication, 90% per cent said they would vote for the ANC in an election. However, in the same survey 65% of the shop stewards said they would support a workers’ party if it existed and was supported by COSATU.

COSATU Special Congress

One way or another, the road to the COSATU Special Congress will probably seal the fate of COSATU. Should the process to the Congress be organised democratically and without intrigue, there may be a chance of whichever side loses staying and playing the role of a loyal opposition.

Will the coming debate be about ‘leaders’ or about political programmes and visions for the future? Can the elephant in the room finally grab a vuvuzela and blow life into the stalemate of our labour movement?

Politics is the art of the possible, said Otto Von Bismarck. He should perhaps have added that politics is also the art of making the impossible possible. And such is the task in the coming months of responsible and non-sectarian working-class leadership.

However, with the stakes being so high it is difficult to see any of the protagonists sticking to rules of gentlemanly conduct. There are already strong indications that the anti-Vavi camp will use its majority and permanently expel Vavi. It is also clear that the ANC and SACP are not staying out of the fray. Already the ANC under the guidance of secretary general Mantashe has set up a task team of eight members to help COSATU overcome its divisions. Speaking at the end of a recent NEC meeting, Manatashe said ‘the NEC reaffirmed that the party had a revolutionary duty and responsibility to work for maximum unity of all the alliance partners’.

But the role of the ANC is not seen in these benign terms. Karl Cloete, deputy general secretary of NUMSA, slammed the ANC’s role in COSATU. ‘It is the ANC that wants a conveyor belt, a toy telephone, a labour desk, that is not critical of anything … they must go to the NEC (the ANC’s national executive committee), it all started there,’ he told NUMSA’s political school in Benoni.

The level of division and mistrust is palpable from other statements of Cloete at the same event: ‘Your federation is in trouble. I am not wanting to be a sangoma, but I can see a possibility if truth be told. If I was to foretell what is to come, a split is imminent. You are dealing with tsotsis, I’m not insulting anyone, I’m just stating the facts. Never before have we dealt with tsotsis. You can never undermine the constitution of COSATU and hope to get away with it.’

There is more and more evidence that NUMSA is preparing its members for a split in COSATU and the break-up of the Alliance. It still needs to be seen if the NUMSA leaders can carry their members and most importantly other affiliates or sections of these affiliates for what would amount to a very traumatic and tumultuous divorce. Tumultuous because for the ANC and SACP it’s a marriage conceived under the laws of the Catholic church: no divorce; it is until death do us part.

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