Cosatu split may herald new era in SA politics

2015-04-07 11:00

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If the price of unity is paralysis, then unity is no virtue. And, as far as labour federation Cosatu is concerned, paralysis is the new normal.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, a split in the labour movement may be good for workers.

It may even presage a new era in South African politics. But this will require far-sighted political leadership.

Like it or not, union monopolies have not significantly advanced the position of South African workers over the past decade. Real wages are stagnant, working conditions are poor and recent legislative changes are just a case of old wine in new bottles.

For all its proximity to the ANC, Cosatu has been spectacularly unsuccessful at influencing economic policy.

Simultaneously, the economic indicators that Cosatu cares about have worsened dramatically: inequality is the planet’s worst, unemployment shows no sign of abating and poverty has increased over the past five years, according to Stats SA.

Yet, as gains on the platinum belt made by Amcu suggest, new unions can secure tangible advances in rights and pay while shaking old unions out of their complacency.

After refusing to buckle in the longest mine workers’ strike in local history, Amcu secured pay increases of about R1?000 a month last year. The 2012 farm workers’ strike began with an independent revolt before Cosatu tried to seize the momentum.

The danger is the potential for interunion rivalry to turn violent, but this only underscores the need for mature leadership.

Cosatu may be reinvigorated by competition too. Complacency on questions like Nkandla has hurt the federation’s ability to connect with civil society.

If faced with greater competition, it will have to confront its impotence, infighting and subservience to the ANC’s senior leadership.

Ironically, therefore, the market principle that competition drives increased responsiveness may apply equally to the trade union movement.

But building a successful new federation will not be easy. It will require that all too rare balance between bravery and judiciousness. It will have to unite disparate strands, while staving off an inevitable counterpunch from the reeling ANC-led alliance.

If faced with greater competition, labour federation Cosatu will have to confront its impotence, infighting and subservience to the ANC’s senior leadership. Picture: Daniel Born/The Times/Gallo Images

It will also need to negotiate with the Economic Freedom Fighters, or they could be played off against each other.

Then there’s the question of how to ignite the imagination of South Africa’s politically conscious youth, the effectiveness of which was seen with the #RhodesMustFall campaign. The media will seize on any hint of disunity, and capital will stop at nothing to stymie progress.

Nevertheless, the rewards outweigh the risks.

The alternative is a toothless and divided Cosatu, and an increasingly fragmented “left”. That can only serve the interests of the status quo – and that is taking us nowhere.

Time will tell whether the likes of Zwelinzima Vavi and Irvin Jim will grasp the opportunity to make history, or if hopes for a more competitive politics will be postponed once more.

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