Out of the ruins will emerge another movement as powerful as Cosatu

2015-04-07 06:00

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On the night of May 7 1988, a powerful explosion rocked central Johannesburg. The loud bang was heard kilometres away.

The assumption made by those who heard the sound was that Umkhonto weSizwe had bombed a government installation, but it was the opposite.

Apartheid security forces had bombed Cosatu House in the hope of neutralising the labour federation, which at the time was playing a pivotal role in the anti-apartheid uprising.

The bombing had been ordered in the top echelons of power, something former law and order minister Adriaan Vlok and police chief Johan van der Merwe confessed at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Vlok would later tell the TRC the state hoped the bomb would “cause so much disruption that it would give us a breathing space from Cosatu’s activities”.

Unlike other organisations, where it was easy to target leaders for arrest, harassment and assassination, Cosatu’s power made it difficult for the state to deal with its leaders.

“We knew it was a strong labour movement and were careful not to act against the leadership. However, it’s a pity Cosatu did not concern itself with only labour matters and became involved in other activities,” Vlok explained to the TRC.

The blast did disrupt the work of Cosatu, but the federation bounced back quickly and became more militant.

The power that was garnered and the experience gained by Cosatu in the furnace of resistance were to prove valuable in the post-1994 period as the federation carved out its space in the democratic environment.

It won many legislative and shop floor victories as it flexed its muscle. Its power even threatened some in the new democratic government.

During the Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki years, a coterie of leaders did their utmost to tame Cosatu’s influence in the tripartite alliance and governing arena.

It was to no avail. Instead, it forced Cosatu to become a major driving force in the campaign to remove Mbeki from power in the late 2000s and install Jacob Zuma in his place.

The reign of President Zuma was supposed to herald the glory years for Cosatu.

It would now have a worker-friendly president in power, a former worker leader running the daily affairs of the ANC at Luthuli House and an unprecedented number of communists and trade unionists on the governing party’s national executive.

If only things were that simple. The glory years turned out to be the nightmare years.

Instead of being the time in which Cosatu was to have the ear of policy makers and implementers, the era was to see the unravelling of the federation.

The unravelling has been rapid and culminated in the expulsion of general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi in what is now an official split in the federation.

What Vlok failed to do with his bombing and Mbeki failed to do with his machinations has finally been achieved under a friendlier regime.

No doubt there will be many who will celebrate the destruction of Cosatu. Short-sighted free marketers will think a weaker Cosatu will mean less labour influence over government policy, less muscle on the shop floor and a more investor-friendly climate.

The power brokers in the governing party will give the thumbs up to a more malleable Cosatu, which they can easily ride roughshod over.

The victors in the Cosatu war will appreciate the fact that they are now fully in charge and will never again have to tolerate Irvin Jim’s gap-toothed smile.

There are those who will mourn the weakening of an institution that was such a vital cog in our democratic infrastructure. For without a strong Cosatu, South Africa will be without a strong counterbalance to power, a role this ANC ally played more effectively than the opposition.

Sober-minded capitalists will mourn the demise of Cosatu because the maturity and sophistication of its leaders ensured relative stability in industrial relations.

Within the ANC alliance, there will be regrets that the only voice on the left has been muted, as the utterly useless SA Communist Party will now have to be the dominant player in that arena.

But everyone should hold off on the premature celebrations or gnashing of teeth. It will not be long before the space Cosatu occupied is filled by someone else.

Out of the ruins will emerge another labour movement as powerful as Cosatu once was. For years now there has been talk of the country’s three major federations merging to form a superunion.

One of the stumbling blocks to its formation was Cosatu’s formal alliance with the ANC, which the National Council of Trade Unions and the Federation of Unions of SA found untenable.

The unions that will coalesce around the National Union of Metalworkers of SA will now be in a position to engage with the other federations unencumbered by their formal allegiance to the governing party.

It will not be an easy ride, however, as Numsa is strongly political and sits on the radical left, something a few of the other unions might find difficult to live with.

But one thing’s for sure – the union landscape is about to undergo some drastic surgery.

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