Can Cosatu get its bite back?

2018-04-29 06:05
Mondli Makhanya

Mondli Makhanya

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Labour federation Cosatu was once the behemoth of the labour movement and a booming voice on the sociopolitical scene.

In the 1980s, Cosatu could literally bring the economy to a standstill when it organised a general strike. Factory machines would fall silent, mines would stop, central business districts would be deserted and, in suburbia, the kitchen sinks would overflow with unwashed dishes.

Because it was one of the best-organised forces – with branches in every workplace and a tightly regimented structure – Cosatu became the backbone of the mass democratic movement. So much so that the security forces felt it necessary to plant a big bomb that devastated its building. As devastating as it was, the bomb proved just a hiccup in Cosatu’s work.

When South Africa transitioned to democracy, Cosatu refused to be a mere appendage of its ally, the ANC. It donated some of its key leaders to Parliament, Cabinet and other organs of state, but remained autonomous of the ANC’s decisions. From time to time, the federation clashed with the ANC as a party and as the government on policy and policy implementation. Cosatu-affiliated unions did not hesitate to take on ministers from its own ranks or who were members of its ideological fellow traveller, the SA Communist Party. Its first loyalty was to the workers.

Then came the rise of Jacob Zuma and Cosatu ditched principle in favour of expedience. The federation’s leaders so hated then president Thabo Mbeki that they fell overly in love with Zuma. It was not just love. It was the sort of blind love that makes you mistake your lover’s pimples for fashionable make-up and admire the fragrance of their smelly socks.

This love was one of the key factors that propelled Zuma to the presidency of the ANC and the state. Once Zuma was in power, Cosatu forgot that its initial support for him was because it had believed he would be more amenable to left-leaning policies and would preside over a worker-friendly administration.

From 2009, Cosatu turned itself into a Zuma defence militia. The more the disgusting revelations about his conduct and his treasonous ways came to the fore, the more the Cosatu hierarchy defended him. Those who differed with the slavish support for Zuma found themselves sidelined or booted out.

Cosatu’s then general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, was one of the leaders who quickly saw through Zuma and tried to remind his comrades why they initially backed the man. But it was too late. Zuma brigadiers found a perfect opportunity to snuff him out when they discovered he had done adult stuff in the office with a junior employee who was already committed to doing adult things with someone else. Something along those lines.

Also enthusiastically driven out was the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) – the federation’s biggest affiliate. History records that the ouster of Vavi and the expulsion of Numsa would lead to the formation of the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu). Many Cosatu affiliates abandoned ship and joined the new force.

Still Cosatu failed to see that it was killing itself. It was as if Cosatu was in a trance, running towards an oncoming train.

As the stranglehold of the Guptas tightened and state capture became as familiar and normal to South Africans as a Kaizer Chiefs defeat recently, Cosatu remained in its trance. Its leaders could not shake the Zuma spell.

With Cosatu severely weakened by the defections of affiliates and loyalty to the Zuma faction of the ANC, the mantle of leader of the working class fell to the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa). This non-aligned federation took a South African position and worked with other societal formations to take on the forces of state capture. Cosatu remained a passive spectator while some of its leaders continued to openly back Zuma.

It was very late in the day, when the arrogance and sense of impunity of Zuma and the Guptas had reached incredible levels, that Cosatu could not ignore the problem any more. By the time Cosatu leaders found their voices, they discovered just how out of touch with their membership they had been. The rank and file were far ahead of them in their rejection of state capture. They rejected Zuma’s corruptive ways long before leadership was prepared to lead.

The effect of all this is that Cosatu became one of those lame guard dogs who find barking an effort. The federation will need an injection of some strong steroids and a change of diet if it is to gets its bark and ferocity back.

The events of this week, which saw Saftu stage large marches against the proposed national minimum wage levels, showed Cosatu’s waning relevance. Major campaigns on political and socioeconomic issues are now mainly the terrain of Fedusa and Saftu, with the biggest trade union federation seeming to be a distant third in terms of voice and influence.

Cosatu can regain its power. But its proximity to President Cyril Ramaphosa – who it backed in the ANC succession race – and the need to protect him from the fightback by pro-Zuma forces, will make this tricky.

Read more on:    cosatu  |  labour

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