Has Cosatu lost it?

2012-09-15 12:00

Federation is now a far cry from its founding tenets

The spirit of the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) was imbued in the person of its first president, ­Elijah Barayi, who – in defiance of the apartheid government – tore up his prepared speech at the federation’s launch and challenged PW Botha, demanding the removal of the pass laws within six months.

Barayi’s actions at the launch of Cosatu at Kings Park Stadium in Durban in December 1985 was viewed as a radical step at a time when state repression was being ratcheted up on a daily basis.

Nearly 27 years on, the labour federation which was born out of the interlocking of workplace and community struggles appears to have lost some of the fire which the likes of firebrand leaders such as Barayi represented, to the point that its “social licence” to represent workers is coming under increased scrutiny, most critically by its own constituency: the workers.

On the eve of its 11th national congress the federation appears to be failing in its ability to juggle its dual mandate of representing workers as workers, and workers as citizens. How did it reach the point where other forces are stepping into the space it seems to be vacating?

The transition to democracy coupled with economic liberalisation placed huge pressure on ­unions. It led to increased competition and inter-union ­rivalry for formal sector jobs.

SA unions were not alone. Their global counterparts faced similar pressures but the difference was that the federation spent an inordinate amount of time trying to manage alliance politics, to the point that in the build-up to Polokwane, the federation ­effectively became Jacob Zuma’s public relations tool, driving the agenda in their desire to oust Thabo Mbeki as president.

The union and its affiliates convinced workers that a change in ANC leadership was necessary.

Amid heightened worker ­expectations post-Polokwane, the anticipated improvements in working and living conditions failed to materialise. Instead, workers faced job losses and community protests.

Unions were forced into ­negotiating lower wage demands to save jobs, and communities learnt that the more violent the protest, the more senior the government leader deployed to handle it.

The union’s first public acknowledgement of its concerns around how the alliance was operating emerged in the September ­Commission released in 1997.

Ahead of subsequent congresses, calls were made to break the alliance and each congress sought to debate how the federation could reclaim its space in the ­alliance.

What started emerging in the federation’s efforts to engage in national social transformation was that local shop floor engagement was weakened and ­undermined.

With the shift in focus to ANC succession politics in the ­alliance, a process of stifling internal democracy began. The consequence of this has been the extent to which leadership is now able to represent the political interests of workers. It limits their ability to understand and take forward workers’ shop floor related issues.

Fast forward to today, and the ­secretariat report to be debated at congress highlights some of the same problems which have plagued the unions for years: union splits, unions being deregistered, unions under threat, loss of members to rival unions, a lag in ­providing quality trade union education – the list goes on.

The time for repositioning and rethinking is now. The danger of continued immersion in ANC politics (and personal advancement) is that it comes at the expense of connecting with members and ­ representing their interests on the shop floor.

As in the ANC, union­leaders have become increasingly alienated from their members – neither knowing, nor understanding, their thinking.

The danger of creating a vacuum has become all too clear with the events surrounding Marikana and beyond.

Can Cosatu and its affiliates rise to the challenges facing us today as previous leaders like Barayi did, or will the machinations of national politics reign supreme at the ­expense of worker unity, union ­accountability and anchored ­leadership?

» Mseme is a public policy and ­stakeholder expert and Grawitzky is an ­independent ­researcher

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