Cape Town - Unless democratic centralism is both truly democratic and principled it “simply doesn’t wash", Zwelinzima Vavi, embattled general secretary of Cosatu told the UNI World Congress in Cape Town Tuesday morning.
This was the only, barely veiled, swipe at the way in which the majority of the Cosatu executive has acted, especially in the announced expulsion of metalworkers’ union Numsa.
He stated: “The leadership of our unions needs to be in touch with the pulse of an increasingly desperate workforce. Behaviour where union leaders act like bosses and believe that because they are elected they can make decisions without reference to the base must become a thing of the past.
He added: “Dressing such practices up as ‘democratic centralism’ just doesn’t wash any more. Democratic centralism is only revolutionary if it is truly democratic and principled.”
The leadership of the unions need to be in touch with the shop floor and “should not behave like bosses”.
And he did warn of the dangers of divisions that threaten the split “this giant federation (Cosatu)”. He admitted that Cosatu was “currently paralysed and wounded”.
The leadership, he said, appeared to be “drifting away from the resolutions of the last Cosatu congress”.
For the most part, Vavi delivered a well-crafted speech, giving a breakdown of the problems facing the economy, and concentrating on unemployment and poverty and highlighting the concentration of wealth in South Africa.
As several South African delegates to the UNI congress noted: “Vavi has to walk a careful line. He still has to work ion the executive.”
Although he mentioned union leaderships in general, the Cosatu executive claims to act on the basis of democratic centralism in exactly the manner outlined by Vavi.
While he did not mention the vexed question of the special national congress that was called for by nine affiliated unions nearly 18 months ago, this was a veiled criticism of the way the issue has been handled.
It was the delay in announcing the special congress — justified on the basis of democratic centralism —that resulted in metalworkers’ union Numsa, calling its own special congress and leaving the political alliance with the SACP and the ANC.
The upshot of this was that the majority of Cosatu’s central executive committee, again acting on the basis of what they referred to as democratic centralism, announced the expulsion of Numsa, the federation’s largest affiliate.
However, the Cosatu constitution states that, while the executive may expel an affiliate, this can only be ratified — and may be overturned — by a national congress of delegates.
Vavi, however, ended his speech calling for Cosatu to remain a "fighting, militant, socialist orientated trade union federation".
"It would be over my dead body that Cosatu would become a sweetheart union, a political conveyor belt," he said.