Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Picture: SOWETAN
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Picture: SOWETAN

CONGRESS of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said on Thursday that corruption within the ranks of the federation and its affiliates was a worrying trend, with 12% of affiliate members having personally witnessed corruption within their unions.

This issue had to be tackled head-on, he said, speaking at the National Union of Mineworkers’ bargaining council in Midrand.

Cosatu is a strong voice against corruption in South African, with Mr Vavi himself landing in hot water with federation ally the African National Congress due to his criticism of the government’s attitude toward corruption. The federation also established nongovernmental organisation Corruption Watch a year ago.

On Thursday, Mr Vavi said corruption within the ranks of the union movement was something no one wanted to talk about, but workers were clearly worried about the phenomenon.

It was of "huge concern" that a third of members of Cosatu affiliates alleged that there was corruption in their unions and that 12% of members had personally observed corruption within their unions.

"We cannot be calling on the government to take stern action against corruption and then sweep it under the carpet in our own house," he said.

According to a Cosatu study, perceptions of corruption were highest in the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) and the NUM. Forty-three percent of NUM members believe there is corruption in the union and 20% have seen it for themselves.

Last year, former Satawu president Ephraim Mphahlele formed a splinter union after alleging that there was a corrupt relationship between certain union leaders and employer the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa. The splinter union, the National Transport Movement, is now fighting for recognition at South African Airways.

Mr Vavi said whether or not the perception of corruption in these unions was a reality was irrelevant — what mattered was that the perception existed.

"If such high numbers of our members think there is corruption then you must be worried ... and we must leave no stone unturned to seek out the truth in every instance where an allegation of such a nature is made," Mr Vavi said.

Corruption in the labour environment included taking bribes from management, "selling out" to management, creating privileges for leaders and abusing union funds.

He said it was encouraging that the NUM was reviewing the conditions and responsibilities of full-time shop stewards to address the perception of corruption among them.

NUM general secretary Frans Baleni agreed that there was a "tendency" to look only at the government and forget about workers when speaking about corruption. He said there was a general "moral decay" in society — citing an example of a mortuary worker in the Eastern Cape who spent R15,000 on the credit card of a person who had died in a car accident.

Corruption was one of many challenges faced by Cosatu and its affiliates, Mr Vavi said, which it had to address to represent workers adequately in South Africa.