Is Cosatu a paper tiger?

2012-09-25 00:00

THE Marikana crisis has brutally exposed the Congress of South African Trade Union’s (Cosatu) weaknesses. Unless the trade union federation dramatically overhauls its structures, priorities and policies, one of the developing world’s greatest trade union movements will be in real danger of fragmenting, losing members en masse and becoming irrelevant.

Marikana has put into question the very reason for the existence of the traditional trade union.

At Marikana, workers in the mining sector rejected established trade union representation, namely the National of Union of Mineworkers (Num), Cosatu’s largest affiliate, and elected their own representatives to negotiate on their behalf, circumventing the official bargaining processes. The Marikana workers secured wage increases between 11% and 22% — far beyond what Num could negotiate for them.

Furthermore, Num and Cosatu were outshone by the expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and his Friends of the Youth League lobby group, who have been leading Marikana miners following the massacre. Last year, before he was expelled from the ANC, Malema threatened at the ANC Youth League’s national conference to turn the ANC Youth League into an alternative social movement, which would compete with Cosatu by recruiting non-unionised young workers, the unemployed and the youth, and sectors not reached by Cosatu, as well as poaching unhappy Cosatu members.

If there is one crucial lesson from Marikana it is that, as Mathews Phosa, the ANC treasurer, put it correctly, many workers have “lost faith in legitimate authorities”. Among these legitimate authorities are the governing African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu, as well as democratic institutions such as Parliament, the public service and police.

It appears that rank-and-file trade union members believe these institutions to be unresponsive, unaccountable and uncaring. If these legitimate authorities don’t become more responsive, accountable and democratic, supporters will look to new ones, including populist organisations and leaders, or seek answers in violence.

From the Marikana crisis, it is clear that many ordinary Cosatu members believe that the trade union federation’s alliance with the governing ANC has not brought enough rewards.

The Cosatu decision in 2007 to back Jacob Zuma for the presidency of the ANC, without any clear conditions, is one of the reasons for the current crisis in the federation.

Cosatu wrongly calculated that it could control Zuma. However, he is indebted to so many individuals and groups — and says yes to so many of them — that it was always going to be naïve to think that he would be able to focus exclusively on Cosatu’s agenda.

A second presidential term for Zuma is unlikely to be any different. He has lost so much credibility among key groups within and outside the ANC, and is opposed by so many of them, that a second presidential term by him is likely to end in perpetual paralysis.

Zuma may well win the ANC presidency, on the basis of KwaZulu-Natal support. However, many other provinces will oppose him. Many senior ANC leaders oppose him, and trade unionists and ANC senior public servants also oppose him. It is likely that he will face even more internal ANC opposition during the second term — a recipe for paralysis.

Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of Cosatu, argued in his political report to the federation’s conference that the ANC can go one of two ways: a high road or a low road. The low road would be for the ANC to lose support, with new splits appearing and the party’s integrity compromised by tenderpreneurs and businesspeople using the party to secure state contracts. The high road option, according to Vavi, would be for the ANC to repeat the success of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and his Workers’ Party, who was in office from 2003 to 2011.

Vavi argued the leadership in Brazil was “uncompromised”, “decisive” and “practical”. They were “primarily driven by a desire to address the needs of the people”. Furthermore, the Lula leadership and state bureaucracy were “accountable to the people”. Brazil made strides in reducing poverty, creating decent work, and reducing inequality and unemployment over a short period, Vavi said.

Sadly, for many observers, under the Zuma presidency, the ANC is already well on its way on the low road scenario — and re-electing him is likely to continue this decline.

If the Zuma second-term bid fails, as it surely will, Cosatu will be tarnished by Zuma and go down with him. Cosatu will face the prospect of being replaced by Num-like breakaway trade unions, such as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), or plunge into irrelevance.

What should Cosatu do? First, Cosatu should push for a new ANC president and leaders, energy and ideas at the ANC’s Mangaung national conference in December.

Cosatu should organise a formal democratic lobby within the ANC Tripartite Alliance itself, in alliance with other civil society groups. Such a democratic lobby should push for the election in the ANC of only genuinely democratically elected and non-corrupt leaders, and hold the party vigorously accountable, and see to it that it implements sensible policies.

Further, Cosatu members who have been elected on an ANC ticket to Parliament, provincial legislatures and municipalities, must form a formal labour lobby to push and vote for pro-poor policies in the government. Cosatu must adopt formal policy-making provisions to immediately recall trade unionists elected to the government and Parliament who do not perform.

Cosatu must also make its own internal operations more democratic and hold its own leaders more accountable. The federation could transform itself into a social movement trade union, and focus on broader societal issues that affect its members: such as improving public transport, housing, education and health care, and holding democratic institutions more accountable. But also important, Cosatu will have to prioritise the unemployed — who now outnumber the employed — and other vulnerable workers too.

If the leaders of the ANC-SACP-Cosatu Tripartite Alliance do not take the explosive aftershock of Marikana seriously, and undertake the necessary reforms, they face the prospect of more breakaways and continued loss of support.

• William Gumede is author of the recently released Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times, Tafelberg.

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