IF THERE was ever any doubt about the power of mass protest action in SA, the Congress of South African Trade Unions's (Cosatu's) performance over the past two months has laid it to rest.
Since Cosatu's stunning mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of people on March 7 against labour brokers and e-tolling, things have been falling neatly into place for the federation. It has won the withdrawal of proposed labour law amendments, which sought to tighten regulations around strikes, and an agreement to postpone e-tolling.
The victories came not because the government caved in to Cosatu's demands, but because the African National Congress (ANC) was so shaken by the March action. The extent of the mobilisation - Cosatu reckons 2-million people stayed away from work - and interest shown by workers, who thronged to marches, surprised even Cosatu.
By comparison, the ANC enjoys no such mobilising power. Local protests, in which its own members are participants, are increasingly hard to manage. While in the past, protestors symbolically burned public property, targets are now the homes, cars and persons of ANC councilors. ANC branch and regional politics has become dirty and violent, with some members carrying firearms to meetings and attacks and shootings of local leaders are not infrequent. Cosatu's mobilisation, on the other hand, can be turned on and off: it is disciplined, targeted, channels social anger and is beautifully orchestrated.
Before the strike, Cosatu lobbied the government to prevent the proposed amendments to the Labour Relations Act from going ahead. Although it had already won agreement on changes to the law that would curtail the exploitative power of labour brokers, it strongly opposed the introduction of new picketing and balloting rules for strikes in the proposals. These were raised in a meeting with Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant, who agreed they would be withdrawn. But to Cosatu's annoyance, Oliphant failed to successfully make the case to the Cabinet and the amendment bill was approved containing the provisions on strike rules.
However, what Cosatu failed to get out of the government before its mass action, the ANC conceded after the strike. The ANC agreed to postpone e-tolling, even while the government was arguing the dangers of such a delay in court. It also agreed to withdraw amendments to the law that would have made strike balloting compulsory; would have limited picket lines to workers only (no supporters); and would have made it illegal for all workers "exercising authority in the name of the state" - for example, teachers and health-workers - to strike. Since the amendment bill has already passed through the Cabinet, the changes will have to be made in the parliamentary process.
There is lots to draw from these events. First, it is highly significant that the quantum of labour law amendments that now stand to be passed by Parliament is completely in labour's favour. Although labour brokers have not been "banned", this is not really material as the most abusive practices and worst effects for workers will have been eliminated in law. Second, the strike and ensuing success in discussions with the ANC has been very good for Cosatu's unity.
The gains that Cosatu has made during the administration of President Jacob Zuma are now demonstrable to workers and everyone in Cosatu, no matter their political stance. At its most recent central executive committee meeting last month, the political discussion paper - typically a highly critical and hard-hitting document - stated that Cosatu's mobilisation had "shifted the political terrain" and said the federation needed "to acknowledge that the balance in government is slowly tilting in favour of working class priorities".
The successes have helped to build a united perspective within Cosatu on the biggest stumbling block to its unity: its posture towards the ANC. In its May Day statement and other internal documents, its stance on the ANC is neatly summed up as being neither purely oppositional nor uncritically supportive. Cosatu will, it says, "advance a progressive agenda together with and in support of our alliance partners" but will also be "outspoken and firm on issues of principle . and will militantly mobilise our members". As obvious as this position might seem in retrospect, it has plagued Cosatu for much of the past year. Much has been written about its internal divisions, which have seen those of its key leaders who support another term for Zuma - for example, the general secretaries of the National Union of Mineworkers, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union and the South African Democratic Teachers Union - lining up against those who oppose it, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and the president and general secretary of National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa).
Now, there is even peace over this. An old agreement with the ANC - made in May 2008, in which Cosatu agreed to no longer publicly pronounce on its preferences for ANC leadership - has been revived. Everyone agrees Cosatu will not be going to the ANC's national conference at Manguang with a slate and that at most it might publish criteria for leadership "as a recommendation to delegates".
Alongside this agreement is the adoption of a protocol for Cosatu leaders on the articulation of political questions related to the ANC, Zuma and the succession. It is agreed that everyone will do two things: defend the ANC leadership collective that was elected at Polokwane; and defend the ANC against corrupt elements intent on capturing state resources for their own benefit.
It is important to note that this means it is fine to speak up in support for Zuma but this shouldn't be taken to mean that he is being endorsed for Manguang. It also means that the ambiguous flirtations with expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, that Numsa has at times pursued, are off.
The six points in the protocol are all open to wide interpretation. But differences will be solved by debate, says Vavi.
The biggest reason for the truce is the real fear and danger of a split in the federation. The emerging tensions in its relationship to the ANC and the South African Communist Party had the potential to become real political and ideological differences and ultimately "to rapidly escalate into full-blown splits", says the federation in a succession of official documents.
So having stared into the abyss of a split, Cosatu's protagonists have pulled back.
Unity has also been helped by events in the ANC. No real challenger to Zuma has emerged and the assessment among several individual leaders in the affiliates is that Kgalema Motlanthe isn't serious about contesting for the ANC presidency in December. Since Motlanthe's candidacy has been pushed by only one faction in the ANC - fronted by Malema - it lacks both weight and credibility. It's not likely then, they surmise, that Motlanthe will really vie for the presidency.
The combination of events has calmed tempers in Cosatu. It has also left it and its public face - Vavi, who significantly has opted to stay in the federation for another term - more powerful.
Better conditions for unity and astute consensus building should help Cosatu find a path through the treacherous political minefield of ANC alliance politics. As a result, in the coming few years, Cosatu can be expected to have a growing rather than diminishing role in national politics.
. Paton is writer at large.