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South Africa: working class lodestar now a shadow of itself

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander/ African News Agency (ANA) – Cosatu’s top six leadership elected at the Federation’s 13th national congress held in September 2018. Trapped inside the ANC-SACP-Cosatu Tripartite Alliance and devoid of innovative strategies to counter anti-union economic restructuring, Cosatu is losing members and failing to defend and advance the interests of employed workers, says the writer.

By Dr Trevor Ngwane

In 1985, a giant was born. Cosatu was launched in Durban during the height of the anti-apartheid Struggle. The powerful union federation was formed by 33 unions and 479679 paid-up members.

Its birth was a game changer, and everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before the apartheid regime fell. Nothing could stand in the way of an organised and mobilised working class. Today, 37 years later, where is the giant? How strong is it? Did it achieve what it set out to do?

To answer the questions, ahead of the Federation’s 14th national congress which kicks off on Monday in Midrand, we must look at the condition of the working class in whose name Cosatu was formed. South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. Most working-class people are poor.

Unemployment is reaching 50% of the potential workforce. Most workers are not paid a living wage. Labour analysts distinguish between three forms of power – associational, workplace bargaining and societal power.

Unions are associations of workers who come together because they share the same class interests. The secret is turning the power of association into workplace bargaining power that can win workers better wages and working conditions.

Societal power is when the union movement can influence society and the state to introduce policies and laws that serve the broad working class, including the unemployed, young, retired and disabled. In 1990, the ANC-SACP-Cosatu Tripartite Alliance was formed. At first, this seemed like a good idea.

At last, once an ANC government was installed, organised labour and the political vanguard of the working class would have the ear of a ruling party. But it was soon apparent that this was a trap. Not only did the ANC claim to be the undisputed leader of the alliance but it was also in control of the government, giving it tremendous power vis-à-vis its alliance partners.

It used the power to control, contain and emasculate the once-militant union movement. Cosatu leaders were encouraged to use their union positions as conveyor belts to Parliament, where they would enjoy tremendous power and money. This turned them into the lapdogs of the ANC.

Another path to fantastic riches was their control and abuse of the assets of union investment companies. As labour analyst Sakhela Buhlungu observed, the union leaders stopped prioritising the interests of their members and social distance developed between the leader and the led.

The Marikana massacre in August 2012 dramatically illustrated the chasm. The workers were killed, according to Buhlungu, because “they were virtually sacrificed by their union, management, the alliance and the state”.

This was arguably Cosatu’s lowest point, when its leaders turned their backs on the workers they represented. Another low point, this time an own goal, was when Cosatu expelled the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, one of its biggest affiliates. Numsa is the biggest in Africa in terms of membership.

At various points in its history, the union fought to defend and advance the interests of workers inside Cosatu. In 1987, Cosatu adopted the Freedom Charter, thus tying itself to following the ANC political lodestar.

Numsa called for a Workers Charter that addressed the needs of workers and paved the way for a struggle for socialism. The reverberations from the Marikana massacre resurfaced the old debates as workers once again wondered aloud about the class interests served by the alliance.

This time, matters came to a head, and in 2013, Numsa convened a special national congress where it resolved to cut ties with the ANC and stop funding the SACP. The arguably ruthless and reckless response by the Cosatu special central executive committee was to expel Numsa, with its 350 000 members, from the federation on November 8, 2014.

Numsa’s expulsion came at a critical time for the union movement in South Africa and the world. Global capitalist restructuring was leading to massive job losses, outsourcing and labour broking in a bid by the bosses to boost flagging profitability and weaken union organisations.

Indeed, one reason given prominence by Cosatu for expelling Numsa was that the latter was extending its union scope and organising outside its demarcated industrial sectors (metal, auto and engineering). The move by Numsa was a response to capitalist restructuring, whereby the union would organise down the value chain.

For example, in the auto sector, the union would recruit not only inside the car factory but also among workers who manufactured seat covers.

Numsa was ahead of other Cosatu unions in exploring solutions to the anti-union economic restructuring. Trapped inside the alliance and devoid of innovative strategies to weather the onslaught, Cosatu is under-performing despite boasting 17 unions and 1.8 million members.

It is losing members and is failing to defend and advance the interests of employed workers, let alone those of the broader working class. Its powerlessness was recently exposed when the ANC government brazenly reneged on a wage increment that was agreed upon and due to public sector workers.

It is sad that the giant that was the hope of workers has become a shadow of itself because it has allowed the politics of class collaboration to eat into the heart and soul of the workers movement. It is infuriating that it is workers who suffer because their leaders make agreements with bosses to protect profits.

Workers must struggle with their hands tied behind their backs. They cannot use their full power to defend and advance their interests because their leaders are holding hands with their class enemies. Cosatu was formed to struggle for the emancipation of labour.

At the time, the call for socialism was commonplace among ordinary workers in South Africa. It has arguably become a vehicle for the self-enrichment of its leaders and a cage to contain the militancy of the workers.

It is in bed with a capitalist political party that is assisting the bosses to continue exploiting workers. Cosatu’s leadership allows itself to be manipulated by the SACP, the buried vanguard of workers in a bourgeois parliament. Now is the time to revive the mighty working-class movement that was too strong for the apartheid regime.

It is time to fight for a new Cosatu, a new union movement that is militant, democratic, based on the needs of the working class, worker-controlled and independent of ANC capitalist politics – a new trade union movement that will be at the front of the struggle for a mass workers’ party, a workers’ government, a workers’ state, and socialism on the road to communism.

Ngwane is the Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg.