IN HIS organisational report to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) congress, which begins today, general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi says the findings of the federation’s 2012 Workers Survey on attitudes to violence during strikes "tell us that we have a problem on our hands".
That must rank as the understatement of the year. As the strife on the mines at the weekend indicates, Cosatu and its affiliate in the sector, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), have lost control of a workforce they used to direct like pawns on a chessboard.
It has got so bad that not only are the workers now intent on representing themselves at the emergency wage talks that have been convened in the wake of the Marikana deaths and explosion of wildcat strikes across the mining sector, but NUM shop stewards are actually being targeted when protest marches turn violent.
Union officials — including those of the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, who were initially considered to be behind the illegal industrial action — now appear out of their depth. Certainly, they no longer enjoy the trust of most strikers, who consider them sellouts who are too closely aligned with mine management and the economically empowered political elite to represent their interests.
This is a volatile time for the mines and SA, but it is equally dangerous for organised labour. Cosatu, in particular, has a "problem on its hands" and it goes well beyond ordinary union members’ alienation from their ostensible leaders. Since its founding in the 1980s, the federation has by necessity filled a dual role as representative of exploited, mainly black, workers in their negotiations with management and an active player in politics.
This was unavoidable during apartheid, when the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and other political organisations representing black interests were banned. Cosatu, and later the United Democratic Front, carried the standard for the oppressed masses as a whole, and did a commendable job under extremely trying circumstances.
When the democratic era dawned, there was much debate within Cosatu over forming a separate labour party, but the power of the ANC brand proved irresistible and the tripartite alliance took shape. With the benefit of hindsight, this was probably wise — imagine a post-Polokwane ANC minus the pragmatists of the Thabo Mbeki camp and dominated by the tenderpreneurs and careerists of the so-called African nationalist faction. Without the steadying influence of Cosatu over the past few years, the governing alliance might have been an entirely principle-free zone.
The core of Cosatu’s problem now is that national politics and traditional plant-level worker representation activities have become hopelessly mixed up, to the point where it is proving impossible to unscramble the egg. NUM officials are despised not only because they are considered part of the new elite, but because the union itself is seen to be in the Jacob Zuma "camp" and, with the ANC’s national elective congress a matter of months away, this is highly contested territory. Nine such Cosatu-affiliated unions have splintered over the past few months as a result of their leaders choosing sides in the ANC presidential race, and the two biggest — the NUM and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA — have nailed their colours to opposing masts.
Cosatu, and Mr Vavi in particular, is very much alive to the threat that the ANC’s internecine battle represents to the future of the federation. Its continued membership of the alliance, and Mr Vavi’s position as general secretary, depend to a large extent on the degree to which ANC politics is allowed to intrude and, if it does, which faction gains the upper hand.
Similarly, if the unions that support Mr Vavi’s call for change at both the leadership level of the ANC and in the way the alliance operates come out on top and Mr Zuma secures a second term in December, a parting of ways will become increasingly likely. If Cosatu was united, whether for or against Mr Zuma, the outcome of the Mangaung leadership election would be a foregone conclusion. By some counts, almost half of ANC members are also members of Cosatu.
But it is not united, and while the balance appears to be tilted in Mr Vavi’s favour as the congress convenes, he has plenty of fires to douse over the next few days.
For all the difficulties he faces, things could be a lot worse for Mr Vavi. He has tried gamely to walk the political tightrope and simultaneously keep the federation relevant as a representative of the working class. And, unlike his counterpart in the SACP, he has been shrewd enough to keep a personal distance by declining to accept a senior post in the ANC or the government.
He has kept Cosatu’s powder dry, or at least prevented it from being completely neutralised, so that if the ANC implodes — a possibility that no longer seems as distant as it did just a few years ago — it will be possible to salvage a left-leaning, labour-orientated party from the rubble. It could, depending on the circumstances of the inevitable ANC split, even emerge as the biggest political party, although probably not with an absolute majority.
That is encouraging in a sense, since it would make for a more rational divide in South African party politics than the ANC’s impossibly broad church allows at present.
But it would also be the start of a whole new period of volatility for SA if Cosatu were to find itself in a position where it could implement its archaic socialist economic policies unhindered by the ANC’s budding capitalists.
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