Who moved my COSATU… The ANC Did!
The birth of democracy in South Africa has ushered challenges of a socio-economic and political nature and labour unions have been some of the organisations which have been affected by these changes.
As a result, unions have sought to redefine their tactical and strategic disposition to face up to these challenges.
Alongside labour unions, there has also been a number of newly emerging social movements, which unlike Cosatu have sought to alter the post-apartheid status quo by acting outside established political framework.
It is important to critically analyse the strategic and tactical effectiveness of these new social movements as opposed to Cosatu and further establish the impact the latter’s strategic and tactical character has had on the organisation, particularly on the eve of the International Workers Day/May Day (May 1st).
It is well established that the formation of the tripartite alliance had Cosatu locked into the political Establishment from the onset.
The current stance by labour can be interpreted as a continuation of the notion of social movement and political unionism which characterised the labour movement in the times of Cosatu’s predecessor the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) in the 1980s.
In this context, the federation sought to discard what is regarded as the narrow form of engagement with the apartheid state to incorporate working class politics into the broader socio-economic and political struggles gripping the country under apartheid. In addition, the federation sought to foster a culture of democratic organization based on grassroots mobilisation under the direction of working class leadership.
A number of strategic compromises and various ideological and practical concerns in the 1980s led to the restructuring of the character of Cosatu as a social movement union.
This saw Cosatu embracing the concept of popular democratic politics - the union between the contestation of workplace issues and challenging the state.
This strategy ‘seeks to preserve the independence and integrity of working-class organisations, while at the same time building cross-alliances in the struggle for ‘broad social and economic change’, with the consequence of counteracting bureaucratic and oligarchic pitfalls characterising the fall of many trade unions.
This has continued to inform Cosatu’s vehement belief that the working class agenda can be promoted within the tripartite alliance if the relationship is kept intact, besides some dissenting voices within the left.
This strategy was the most effective in the 90s as Cosatu achieved a number of successes like the establishment of NEDLAC and the adoption of the Labour Relations and Skills Development Acts.
At this stage decisions were carried-out by a process of deliberation within the institutionally ordered interaction of contending interests. However, the unilateral passing of GEAR by the ANC formed a fracture within the alliance; revealing the fragility of the corporatist arrangement and the diminishing influence of Cosatu within the alliance.
This threw Cosatu into a strategic crisis and set the stage for bitter future relations within the alliance.
The political fall-out between former president Thabo Mbeki and the ANC as well as the acquittal of ANC president Jacob Zuma of charges of, inter alia, fraud and corruption renewed hopes within Cosatu.
The congress has always had its political weight behind Zuma as expressed by the intensive lobbying the congress engaged in for Zuma’s reinstatement at the helm of the ruling party. Although, much had been said about Zuma’s ambiguity on policy issues, the left continues to view him as a champion of the working class struggle.
Zuma’s relationship with the left has cast him in a good light, such that he is viewed by Cosatu as ‘a beacon of hope to the people’. This indicates that Cosatu intends to remain steadfast in its alliance politics to continue operating at the institutional level and to influence the ANC’s policy formulation machinery.
However, the dealings of Cosatu with the alliance members have compelled the congress to assume a particular organisational and tactical structure.
This has been the conversion of the union into an organization with a bureaucratic structure, and most certainly, oligarchic tendencies. It should be borne in mind that the organizational and tactical changes within Cosatu were not instantaneous, but more gradual and in response to evolving socio-political and economic conditions.
Max Weber outlines the features of a bureaucracy at length; however only three of these features will be referred to in line with the purposes of this argument.
Bureaucracies have clearly defined duties, command structures, and a hierarchical arrangement of officials. It is within these elements that we find the seed of what Robert Michels sees as the distortion of democracy called oligarchy – whereby the minority at the top of the organization starts ‘pursuing its [own] ends under the cloak of equality.’
Cosatu’s operation at the institutional level has seen the transformation of its organizational and democratic structures. The problem is that centralized structures can be more effective for institutional change, but have more difficulty in promoting grassroots participation.
Furthermore the process of centralisation has given organizations (or the oligarchy thereof) a great degree of autonomy, such that the values and incentives of top leadership tend to be divergent, and somewhat contradictory, to those of the rank and file; creating an undemocratic culture.
This is indicated by the diminishing confidence of Cosatu members in the alliance and the infighting which had come to upset relations within the congress as indicated by the current backbiting and the demise of democratic centralism within the congress.
The tactical and organisational problems facing Cosatu fall in line with the emergence of new social movements. The disillusionment with the ANC (or the alliance) and diminishing returns on class compromises appear to suggest that the congress might have to look at the tactical and organisational operations of new social movements as a coherent conceptual and strategic alternative to social movement unionism.
Adam Habib observes that the strategic and organisational revitalisation of Cosatu might call for the introduction of substantive uncertainty into South Africa’s body politic, a concept which entails the rejection of corporatism and the shattering of the tripartite alliance, aimed at making government accountable and more responsive.
Touraine’s Fields of Action Theory largely captures the transition that Cosatu has undergone in its history. The theory posits that there are particular historical reasons why certain movements emerge. These movements are in continuous interaction with each other and existing social structures and that they operate within a field of networks between social movements and the forces that shape them.
The interactions Cosatu has had with various actors, whether co-operative or antagonistic, have served to shape the movement into its current form. These interactions range from; inter alia, the anti-apartheid and post-apartheid alliances with the ANC and SACP, worker struggles with employers and the repression by the apartheid state.
Within the structure of the fields of action theory, it appears that Cosatu’s tactical and organisational tactics have become obsolete and thus need to be revised within the broader search for strategic alternatives.
New social movements display a different form of engagement with the state. Unlike Cosatu’s ‘constructive engagement’ strategy, new social movements are actively involved in appealing to and/or challenging the state and other societal stakeholders against the implementation of neo-liberal policies and the hegemony of the ruling party in setting the tempo of political and socio-economic discourse.
The adversarial tactics adopted by new social movements against the state hold great potential for the alteration of the current power relations and, perhaps, assist in building substantive uncertainty within South Africa’s body politic.
Examples of new social movements include the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the Environmental Justice Movement.
Some commentators have noted that the strategies employed by the new movements are largely continuous with earlier struggles and that most of the new movements are new in terms of the object of their dissatisfaction which is the policies and disposition of the ANC.
The tactical approaches of both these movements have similar strands. They both, amongst other things, embrace the full use of existing legal/constitutional frameworks to challenge the state and other targets of their campaigns, whilst remaining mostly adversarial.
These new movements are characterised by a new from of populism to maintain broad-based alliances and mobilisation.
The approaches of both these new emerging movements has been successful, especially the successes enjoyed by the TAC and recently the progress made on the LGBTI front with the formation of the national task force to combat the plague of homophobia. However, it has been noted that most of the movements have lost the energy which they possessed in the post-apartheid mass mobilization arena.
The diminishing strength of these movements is attributed to what Trevor Ngwane called ‘militant particularism’, the limitation of struggles to particular issues or localities.
The failure to engage with Cosatu to form a broad-based working-class struggle has also been the cause of much of the losses by Cosatu and the new social movements.
It is clear that the socio-economic and political challenges in South Africa have presented a number of challenges to various organizations, movements and institutions within the country.
The evolution of South Africa’s body politic has also given birth to a number of crises and movements. The alliance politics of Cosatu have proved to be giving diminishing returns to the congress, compromising its democratic and organisational culture, therefore leading to a need for strategic alternatives.
This has created a complacent ruling party, which has started to take the needs of the working-class and the poor lightly, at times to a fatal conclusion as characterized by Marikana and the police violence which has become the hallmark of many service delivery protests.
Alongside these developments there has also been an emergence of new social movements which have adopted a different approach to that of Cosatu. Although the approaches by new social movements have had benefits for them; these efforts need to compliment each other to create a substantive uncertainty within South Africa’s body politic.