POSTURE: Cosatu members at the federation’s 11th national congress at Gallagher Estate in Midrand. Picture: TYRONE ARTHUR
Picture: TYRONE ARTHUR

IT HAS been a trope of South African politics that some day the African National Congress (ANC) will split, torn apart by tensions between workerist and nationalist factions. A clear demonstration of the extent of the division is shown by recent research among Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) shop stewards. The report, conducted by the Forum for Public Dialogue and commissioned by Cosatu, suggests some extraordinary changes are taking place in the labour movement.

The research, which comprised a national survey of 2,000 Cosatu shop stewards focusing on their social, economic and political attitudes, found that most are against the re-election of Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC. Further, the once hallowed notion of the South African Communist Party (SACP) being the vanguard of the workers’ movement is gone; shop stewards have no confidence in the party.

But this does not suggest a movement away from radicalism — most respondents support nationalisation, for instance. Yet, most surprising, they are not even loyal to the ANC; most want to create a labour party. The findings are a slap in the face for Cosatu leaders, who not only support Mr Zuma, but are committed to maintaining the alliance with the ANC and the SACP. Little wonder this report was shelved before the union’s congress, at which it was decided to support Zuma and at which all leaders were re-elected unopposed. The event had the feel of a stage-managed affair and the report strengthens that suspicion.

The emergence of the report coincides with a statement by Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini that being on the ANC’s national executive committee would not compromise Cosatu leaders’ independence. Mr Dlamini and many other senior Cosatu leaders have been nominated to serve on the ANC executive, and it now seems they are set to accept nomination.

Yet, contrary to Mr Dlamini’s claim, the tendency of Cosatu’s leaders to desert the workers’ struggle and position themselves for cushy positions in the government, or as black economic empowerment beneficiaries, is precisely what is weakening the union movement.

Some elements of business tend to think that a weaker union movement is a good thing. Perhaps. But this is extremely shortsighted. The shop-floor chaos that can be the consequence of union battles is often worse than a strike-prone labour force, and nothing demonstrates that better than the Marikana tragedy.