"BETWEEN a rock and a hard place" is the phrase used by many Congress of South African Trade Union (Cosatu) leaders to describe the federation’s position as it kicks off its national congress on Monday.
Cosatu is at a point in its history where it will be forced to make tough choices, a point where it cannot afford the luxury of business as usual, with the very survival of the federation at stake — a "do or die" situation, as Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi puts it.
Nine Cosatu unions have splintered, 60% of its members have indicated they are unsatisfied with the wage increases secured for them by their unions, half of its rank-and-file members believe violence aids their cause during strikes, and internal divisions are taking its toll on affiliates across the board and in the federation itself.
The events at Marikana exposed a festering wound faced by Cosatu unions, one which a mere plaster is unlikely to heal. The chasm between union leadership and members was exposed in the rivalry between Cosatu’s largest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers, and splinter union the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.
Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini believes the NUM and the federation as a whole in under attack — and its congress next week must take decisions to fortify the federation and its affiliates in the face of the onslaught.
He says evidence of this is the attack on the federation by the "right wing", by sections within the ruling alliance — with its public manifestation in expelled African National Congress Youth League president Julius Malema — and the Democratic Alliance.
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi punts a mind-set change for the federation itself, and for the ruling alliance.
Things have to change within Cosatu, the ANC and the South African Communist Party to effect real changes in the country as a whole.
This is evidenced in his draft political report, expected to be debated during the four-day congress next week.
In the report he says the federation faces a "difficult dilemma" as it considers either abandoning the ruling tripartite alliance or building a direct line to the Presidency.
Cosatu will therefore grapple with its "posture" towards the ruling alliance, and this is likely to be directly linked to the leadership collective that emerges.
It is understood there is a block within the federation seeking to oust the outspoken Mr Vavi, viewing his leadership style as too "individualistic", and bucking against his indefatigable criticism of the challenges facing the ruling party, the state and the alliance itself.
This block is largely influenced by alliance politics, particularly that of the ANC, which holds its own elective conference later this year.
Mr Vavi is seen as a possible opponent by those supporting President Jacob Zuma to lead the party for a second term.
This group — which includes select leaders from the NUM, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union — has been mulling various candidates to take on the powerful, longstanding general secretary.
The last name put forward was that of Cosatu’s KwaZulu-Natal general secretary, Zet Luzipho.
But Mr Luzipho, or anyone else who attempts to take on Mr Vavi, should be prepared for an epic clash, due to both his popularity among rank-and-file workers and his ability to defend himself.
Nominations for positions closed on Tuesday last week but many affiliates opted to spent the weekend caucusing and are set to take the fight to the congress floor.
Those supporting Mr Vavi, with the militant National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa on the frontline, have some ideas for leadership change of their own.
Insiders say they are mulling replacing Mr Dlamini with Sadtu president Thobile Ntola, although a firm decision would be taken only this weekend.
Mr Dlamini says those against him have used the phrase "a recycled Willie Madisha" to describe him, referring to his predecessor who was among the casualties in the ANC’s Polokwane leadership clash in which Mr Zuma triumphed over former president Thabo Mbeki.
Both sides appear to be keeping their cards close, but they are quietly preparing for what could turn out to be a crucial battle.
And for Cosatu’s living wage campaign, among the real bread and butter issues facing workers: how the federation deals with its internal ructions will determine whether it is successful in championing its true cause, that of ensuring decent work for its roughly 2-million members.
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