A paradox or a tragedy?

2010-06-25 00:00

A HISTORY of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) could not have appeared at a more opportune time — the Tripartite Alliance is again under strain as Zwelinzima Vavi points the finger at endemic corruption and tenderpreneurship at the highest levels of government.

Sakhela Buhlungu’s paradox is this: how did the best organised, most cohesive and democratic force in South African politics in 1990 find itself relatively marginalised 20 years later?

After all, a strong group of Cosatu leaders entered parliament in 1994. One of them, Jay Naidoo, was the minister responsible for the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). And post-apartheid legislation, generally regarded as labour- friendly, bears the imprint of Cosatu. Buhlungu finds the answer to the paradox in national and global political and economic trends.

The unionisation of black workers experienced several false dawns: they ended with the demise of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) in the early thirties, the violent suppression of the mine workers’ strike in 1946, and the effective banning of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) in 1960. But in January 1973, a number of spontaneous strikes in Durban, most famously at Coronation Brick and the textile group Frame, laid the foundation of a powerful and successful labour movement. This was to prove a significant, and historically underestimated, factor in the fall of apartheid.

It all required enormous courage, especially before the Wiehahn reforms of 1980, which legalised collective bargaining by black workers. The early unions were strongly rooted in the shop-floor and ultra democratic process, a matter of both conviction and survival. They were assisted by radical university students and church groups — the struggle for social justice was a strong component of the union movement in the seventies. In Pietermaritzburg, the Black Sash advice office operated from the premises of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) in Thomas Street; while union meetings took place at the Lay Ecumenical Centre in Edendale. One of the strongest unions, the Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu), was founded in Pietermaritzburg in April 1973.

Buhlungu draws parallels with the early British trade union movement: religious influence, the key role of clerical workers (artisans in Victorian Britain), altruism, and a tradition of mutual help. Clearly the struggles of surrounding communities had a strong bearing on worker concerns and this resulted in the great debate within Fosatu between workerists and populists. Neither held a rigid position, but the fear of the former was that the party politics of the national liberation struggle would subordinate their bread-and-butter concerns. In Jeremy Baskin’s memorable explanation, workerists found as much politics as they needed on the factory floor. Rival community or general unions had their place, but lacked cohesion and discipline and were prey to opportunism.

In a sense, the populists won out with the formation of Cosatu. It consolidated its 33 affiliates into sectoral unions and expanded its membership rapidly. Within five years it had become the battering ram of the Mass Democratic Movement, so deeply entrenched on the shop floor that an attempt by the government to restrict it under emergency regulations proved fruitless. It withstood a number of brutal assaults by the state, most notably the siege of Cosatu House in Johannesburg, and it is arguable that Cosatu was the most important organisation to confront the State of Emergency. But even more significantly, it had established the rule of law in the workplace and curtailed arbitrary management decision making.

It was thus a crucial component of the Tripartite Alliance. The same cannot be said today. Indeed, many believe Cosatu would do better to go it alone. Buhlungu applies his trade union background and a sociologist’s analysis to these changing circumstances and comes up with disturbing conclusions. One vindicates the workerists: too many Cosatu leaders found national politics and business seductive and abandoned their constituency, some of them becoming notoriously anti-union. Their place was taken by career unionists who behave like bureaucrats and reflect a more materialist, self-interested culture among members.

Indeed, Cosatu has become more middle class with a massive shift away from the factory floor towards public sector membership. By contrast, the textile and clothing sector, 80% of whose workers were unionised in 1990, lost 86 000 workers, to drop to 143 000 by 2005.

A more typical Cosatu member is now a teacher, municipal worker or nurse, and their behaviour during strikes has often betrayed the old Cosatu obligation to civil society. Communication with the general public often leaves much to be desired; and, amidst much else, the dignity of worker struggles has been lost in the trashing of cities and threatening behaviour towards schoolchildren and parents. It is a strangely amoral reaction from what is a relatively privileged segment of South African society.

The old union model based on full-time, permanent employment protected by an interventionist state, argues Buhlungu, is dead — destroyed by globalisation. Cosatu, for reasons connected to resource insufficiency and a tendency to look inward, has failed to react effectively to labour market segmentation and fluidity. Buhlungu’s point that Cosatu’s reactions are ritualised and unimaginative is confirmed by every strike. It has lost its influence among domestic and farm workers, some of South Africa’s most exploited employees; and made little effort to forge alliances with the township and informal settlement social movements that are slowly becoming the main political challenge to the ANC. Cosatu fails to appreciate the position of the really poor, whose divergent material interests could make them allies of a government ruthless enough to unshackle the labour market. Activist altruism is now in short supply, as elsewhere in South African society.

Buhlungu’s paradox could equally be interpreted as tragedy. So many of the labour movement’s achievements of the seventies and eighties have been wrecked, lost or squandered. Once Cosatu gained influence in the late nineties, so it quickly lost power. The most obvious symbol was the rapid abandonment of the RDP and the social democratic programme it represented. Cosatu is fighting a rearguard action within the Tripartite Alliance in which it could, and should, have been a role model of participatory democracy and the torch bearer of socioeconomic justice, a constructive force in building a better society.

Instead, it has abandoned too much of the moral high ground, failed to move with the times and in a sense betrayed its heritage. The choices it makes in the near future will signal either defeat or redemption.

• A paradox of victory: COSATU and the democratic transformation in South Africa by Sakhela Buhlun­gu is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

COSATU was founded in December 1985 and launched at King’s Park Stadium in Durban. Its first president was Elijah Barayi, a mineworker, and its founding secretary-general was the union activist from Fosatu, Jay Naidoo, who had worked in Pietermaritzburg. Its initial membership of 400 000 grew to a million by the late eighties and peaked at 1,869 million in 2000. Numbers have fluctuated since then. It has 21 affiliates, of which the National Union of Mineworkers is the largest. Significantly, the South African Democratic Teachers Union and the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union are not far behind.

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