President Jacob Zuma with Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini. Picture: SOWETAN
President Jacob Zuma with Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini. Picture: SOWETAN

LABOUR federation Cosatu is facing yet another internal battle and, once again, it is over the ANC succession. But can the federation afford another divisive factional fight over ANC politics after it was significantly weakened by the last one? It was also weakened by the one before, when it threw its support behind Jacob Zuma ahead of the Polokwane conference

When it comes to the alliance, Cosatu needed a dramatic change in tactic to repair the damage done through its "vested interest" in the ANC leadership, but it has simply fallen back to its leaders positioning themselves for and against particular ANC leaders and factions.

This week, Cosatu’s special central executive committee met many of the large public sector unions, hoping the federation would emerge with a position endorsing ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa to lead the party after 2017.

However, once again, its top leadership has a different stance to that of the majority of its affiliates.

Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini, who is firmly in the Zuma camp, chaired the meeting on Monday and emerged with a watered-down message on its stance on the succession.

While affiliated unions expressed their desire to endorse Ramaphosa, the chair of the meeting insisted the outcome should not further divide the ANC and the alliance.

Cosatu finds itself in an uncannily similar situation to the run-up to the ANC’s 2012 congress.

Its top six leaders are divided over the succession question, although this time the majority of its affiliates are pushing for the federation to support Ramaphosa, an anti-Zuma slate.

The South African Democratic Teachers Union, the National Union of Mineworkers, the majority of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union are all behind Ramaphosa.

On the other hand, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union and the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union remain firmly in the Zuma camp. This camp is also revolting against the South African Communist Party (SACP), which is now decidedly anti-Zuma. It argues that the SACP is attempting to use unions to mobilise support for Ramaphosa.

The meeting on Monday was an eye-opener for many leaders, who are now keenly aware of Dlamini’s position. While it is not enough for action to be taken against him, many argue that he will begin losing his grip on the organisation, and that if he continues doing Zuma’s bidding in Cosatu, he must be isolated.

Up to now Cosatu and its unions have been in agreement that the focus should be on building the organisation after the factional fight that resulted in the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA and axing of general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

After the 2016 municipal election, however, the federation was forced to face burning political questions.

It is understood that police union Popcru conducted its own study and anticipated the 2016 polls would be a watershed for the ANC, and not in a good way.

Some unions voiced their disapproval of Zuma’s leadership at an August meeting, in a way that surprised its top leadership.

But, still, they are approaching the leadership question cautiously. Individual unions have not been barred from voicing their preference, which many of them are set to do. Meanwhile, unions aligned to Zuma and the executive "premier league" say they could "capture" Cosatu by the 2017 conference by working on its provincial structures.

Despite a debilitating factional fight around the ANC’s leadership succession, which has considerably weakened the country’s largest union federation, it appears the saga has come full circle. It is unlikely to split the federation, but it will weaken it further at a time when 500,000 jobs were shed during the first six months of the year and the country faces a 50% chance of being downgraded by ratings agencies, according to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

Clearly, it is not a good time for labour and unions, whose bread and butter lies in organising the employed. The vortex is strengthening and accelerating the decline of the federation after it failed, once again, to learn from its mistakes.

• Marrian is political editor