Inside Labour: Cosatu on a winding road to its collapse

2015-04-07 15:00

The fact that Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has refused to accept his dismissal from the labour federation should come as no surprise to readers of City Press.

This column has pointed out for months now that the central executive committee (CEC) of Cosatu has no constitutional authority to dismiss, suspend or expel any office bearer or affiliate – only a national congress can do that.

Of course, the constitution can be ignored. It has been for nearly two years, with the CEC refusing to call a special national congress to deal with the problems that have resulted in the announced expulsion of metal workers’ union Numsa, and the sacking of Vavi.

But this leaves the way open for a legal challenge.

It is against this backdrop that ANC secretary-general and former National Union of Mineworkers’ general secretary Gwede Mantashe described the move against Vavi as “reckless”.

The ANC is now trying desperately to contain what looks like the inevitable implosion of the federation.

Vavi and Numsa, with allies such as the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, have reacted by stating that the fight continues to “win back Cosatu to workers’ control”.

According to the majority on the CEC, this is where Cosatu remains and they believe Vavi and Numsa are “splitters” out to weaken the labour movement.

However, Vavi and the Cosatu affiliates who support his position appear to have the better of the argument.

This is mainly because of the CEC’s unwillingness to call a special congress, and now also because of the conditions that were announced in the wake of the decision to dismiss Vavi.

Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini said no Cosatu affiliate or member of any union affiliated to the federation should attend any meeting addressed by Vavi — and, presumably, anyone from Numsa.

He also said Vavi should, in effect, be barred from any of Cosatu’s facilities.

This played into the hands of the CEC dissidents who complain of its high-handed and autocratic management style.

Vavi summed this up by saying: “Momentous decisions affecting the working class are made in small boardrooms, instead of democratically by the members.”

For the federation’s highly respected national spokesperson, Patrick Craven, Dlamini’s instructions were the last straw.

He announced his resignation, saying: “I could not defend the indefensible.”

Several other senior Cosatu figures are also discussing whether to take similar steps.

However, because the battle is not about one individual or one expelled affiliate, but about the “soul of Cosatu”, disgruntled individuals might be persuaded to remain in position, as the fight for a full national congress continues.

Such a congress would have to include not only Vavi, but also Numsa.

Dlamini this week said a special congress would be organised for June, just three months before the scheduled triennial national gathering. This is questionable, since Dlamini last year said a lack of funding was the reason Cosatu had not held a special congress.

“It’s just talk. They’re not going to have a proper congress,” said a senior Cosatu officer who was contemplating resignation.

The absence of a congress would almost certainly open the way for another costly and time-consuming legal battle that seems weighted against the CEC majority.

This seems all the more likely, especially since Vavi and Numsa are unlikely to follow the example of former Cosatu president Willie Madisha and walk away from the fight to try to start a new labour federation.

Madisha did this in 2007 when a hostile CEC, which included Vavi, expelled him for not supporting Jacob Zuma as ANC president. He subsequently joined the Congress of the People and now holds one of its three parliamentary seats.

So the gradual disintegration of Cosatu seems likely to continue whatever the efforts of the ANC, the decisions of the courts or the votes at a national congress – when it is finally staged.

After 30 years of sporadic squabbling about party politics, bureaucracy and worker independence, it now appears an end of some kind is nigh.

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