COSATU is in
the midst of the biggest crisis in its 27-year history. This crisis
has arisen from an SACP-driven attempt to oust democratically elected
COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, under the guise of
corruption charges. The conflict's roots are in longstanding
political contradictions and ideological tensions between COSATU and
its Alliance partners – the ANC and the SACP. At stake is not only
the leadership of COSATU, but its political and moral direction.
sources reveal that the anti-Vavi faction is an alliance between the
leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and elements of
the South African Democratic Teachers Union, the Police and Prisons
Civil Rights Union, and the National Education, Health and Allies
Workers Union. COSATU President Sidomu Dlamini leads this faction,
which is in all likelihood driven by SACP General Secretary Blade
Nzimande and ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe.
are in the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA),
the Food and Allied Workers Union, the South African Commercial and
Catering and Allied Workers Union, the Democratic Nurses Organisation
of South Africa, the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union
and some smaller affiliates. He is also supported by neutral unions
wanting to resist measures that might lead to a split. Most
importantly, the majority of shop stewards in the federation largely
oppose moves to oust him.
battle is ongoing between COSATU's two most sizable affiliates, NUM
and NUMSA, who represent opposing political and union traditions. NUM
represents a COSATU tradition focused on securing a closer working
relationship with the ANC. NUMSA is the descendent of COSATU's
'workerist tendencies' , focused on building democratic worker power
on the shopfloor and critical of aligning unions too closely with the
ANC. The tension between NUM and NUMSA has intensified as NUM's
popularity has reached an all-time low.
Vavi has been
perhaps the most consistent and incisive critic of the Zuma
administration's political trajectory within the Alliance. His
condemnation of a 'predatory elite', criticism of the Nkandla
project, attacks on the SACP's decay and his own anti-corruption
initiatives have not made him popular among the Alliance's new
paranoid and patronage-ridden ruling faction, which views his open
debate and critical analysis as tantamount to rejection of the
used by the campaign against Vavi has been leaks to the media,
including allegations that he sold COSATU's old building in
Johannesburg for R10-million less than its market value and awarded a
tender to a company that employed his step-daughter. No proof has
been produced, yet journalists have become complicit in factional
politics by uncritically publishing 'stories' based on anonymous
three-pronged inquiry into Vavi's affairs has been set up: labour
lawyer Charles Nupen heads up a political commission, former SAMWU
president Petrus Mashishi will look into 'organisational matters' and
Sizwe Ntsaluba-Gobodo will assess COSATU's administration and
finances. The inquiry will report back before the next CEC meeting in
the anti-Vavi campaign has so far been conducted behind closed doors,
in typical SACP manner. Vavi's power, on the other hand, relies on
his ability to appeal directly to rank and file COSATU members. His
greatest defence against the political witch-hunt lies in his
capacity to mobilise workers and shop stewards.
it is Vavi's former allies in the 2008 deal to bring Zuma to power
who have turned against him. The deal was designed to 'overturn the
1996 class project' – the ANC's lusty embrace of neoliberal
macroeconomic policy. Although, without COSATU, Zuma might be sitting
in a prison cell instead of the Union Buildings, COSATU has lost
almost all the significant battles it has engaged in since Zuma's
2009 election (from the youth wage subsidy to e-tolling and the
attempt to ban labour brokering).
SACP and COSATU
unionist Dirk Hartford told Amandla! that the crisis is rooted in the
SACP's longstanding desire to control the trade union movement by
deploying its cadres in leading positions, thus centralising power in
the hands of party leadership. This battle between the dominant
Stalinist current in the SACP and diverse independent political
currents has been ongoing since the 1980s.
of forces in the COSATU leadership and CEC (Central Executive
Committee) now favours the anti-Vavi, pro-SACP faction, despite the
lack of popularity of COSATU President Dlamini and NUM
general-secretary Frans Baleni among most COSATU workers. Vavi, on
the other hand, retains mass support and is perceived as being
willing to speak out of turn and put his neck on the line to defend
leadership spends much of its time protecting Zuma's image and his
government's policies from perceived enemies of the party, rather
than acting on behalf of the working class. Vavi and Irvin Jim's
critiques of these failures have earned them the wrath of Nzimande
and Mantashe. The SACP receives a significant proportion of its
funding from COSATU affiliates: for example, a few years back, NEHAWU
was alleged to have used R20 million from membership dues to pay SACP
salaries and hire venues for their events.
critique developments like this, as this shop steward's comments
'The role of
the SACP has gone down. It is compromised by having members in
Parliament. There is that reactionary clause 4.6 in the SACP that
ensures this – which says if an SACP member is deployed by another
organisation they are bound by the commands of that organisation. The
SACP is in Parliament because the ANC deployed them. If the ANC takes
a reactionary position like supporting the Youth Wage Subsidy are you
then bound by that?'
context of the crisis
also reflects structural economic shifts that have led to changes in
the composition of the working class. Resulting challenges include
difficulties of unionising the informal sector and the growth of
precarious labour to unions' detriment. Furthermore, unions have
failed to respond to the intensification of class struggle,
particularly in mining and agriculture, often siding with employers
rather than workers.
ability to protect workers' interests has been called into question.
As a SADTU shop steward put it, 'COSATU is seriously lacking in
dealing with issues facing workers. In the current conjuncture,
COSATU is not being militant but serving as a policy advisor of the
state. Leaders are no longer articulating the voice of members, but
their own selfish, material voice.'
'The likelihood is that those divisions are linked to groups with
material interests. Underneath all this is a politics of
accumulation. Our leaders have joined their government. Where is
[Sydney] Mufamadi? Where is [Jay] Naidoo? Where is [Cyril] Ramaphosa?
Where was he when Marikana happened? They are sitting on the other
side of the fence.'
workers, in 2010 the largest public sector strikes in South African
history forced direct confrontation between government and COSATU,
with much of COSATU leadership 'missing in action' and some actively
trying to call off the strike prematurely. Workers' fury during the
strike was directed against Zuma and his administration, which had
promised a government more sympathetic to the working class. Despite
Vavi's comment that the federation would 'no longer give the ANC a
blank cheque' during elections, the Zuma government has now moved
further away from the COSATU-backed Polokwane Resolutions.
political analyst Steven Friedman, an obsession with 'high politics'
and the ANC's leadership wrangles has led to a lack of focus on
labour issues and a lack of strategic direction in COSATU. Worker
revolts directed at union leadership are hardly unique. Friedman also
points out that workers who have left COSATU may tire of the
alternatives and eventually return, thereby forcing COSATU affiliates
to reorganise in order to retain membership.
distancing' – the growing gap between a rising bureaucratic caste
of full-time shop stewards and union officials, on one hand, and the
workers they are supposed to represent, on the other – forms a
major aspect of the crisis. Leaders who sit in plush, air-conditioned
offices and live in middle-class suburbs are removed from the lived
realities of workers. They increasingly lack the much-needed activist
background and skills borne of years of struggle on the factory
What is lost
is the culture of 'shopfloor democracy' that built COSATU in the
first place. Union officials are often closer in experience and
priorities to management than to the workers they claim to represent
(although this certainly does not apply universally). The vast
discrepancy between the pay packages of top union officials and
average workers parallels inequality in the private sector as a
whole. For example, NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni, earns some
R116,000 monthly, while the average worker earns around R3,000.
distancing has been a major factor in a growing number of breakaway
unions, as union officials are simply unable or unwilling to take up
worker's demands. It was a key factor in last years's mineworker
strikes leading to the Marikana massacre. NUM has lost over 100,000
members in Marikana's aftermath. Many have joined the independent
Association of Mining and Construction Workers Union (AMCU), set to
become the majority union in the platinum sector. Likewise, social
distancing is a major factor in the formation of the National
Transport Movement, a popular breakaway from the South African
Transport and Allied Workers Union.
leadership seems to be in denial about the reasons for its loss of
members. Even though NUM itself has quite cosy relations with mining
conglomerates, it blames its membership losses on an elaborate
conspiracy by mining companies using AMCU as a front to 'destroy and
dislodge the mineworkers by promoting another union'.
NUMSA, the NDP and neoliberalism
senior ANC officials from Joel Netshitenzhe to Gwede Mantashe have
insisted that 'our revolution' (the National Democratic Revolution)
is multi-class and cannot become 'hostage to narrow sectoral
interests' – that is, it cannot display a working-class bias. This
stance contradicts the COSATU line, based on the Freedom Charter,
that the ANC should be biased towards the poor and working class. The
ANC's new gospel ANC is the National Development Plan (NSP), 'the
only game in town' according to Deputy President and billionaire
Cyril Ramaphosa. The NDP, however, much like Zuma's presidency, can
camouflage itself enough to appeal to many different interests.
the NDP, in NUMSA General Secretary Irvin Jim's words, appear to be
lifted directly from DA policy documents calling for wage suppression
and 'market-driven growth'. According to NUMSA, the NDP is informed
by 'the ridiculous and false belief that South Africa's mass poverty,
unemployment and extreme inequalities can only be sustainably
resolved by growing the economy'. This critique has triggered a rash
of responses, including from arch-neoliberal Trevor Manuel, who
claimed that Jim was possessed by an 'infantile disorder', and from
Jessie Duarte, who accused NUMSA of being driven by 'populism'.
NUMSA press releases directly challenged the SACP leadership and its
role in COSATU. In response to a letter from Jeremy Cronin, for
example, Jim takes public aim (on politicsweb) at Cronin's own
apologetics and at the SACP's attacks on NUMSA and Vavi. This
document could, in effect, be read as a covert declaration of war on
behalf of NUMSA against the SACP.
an unnamed COSATU senior official quoted in the Mail and Guardian,
'Most leaders at the central executive committee level do not
represent the views of the workers. [Vavi's] strength lies in
addressing worker issues. Most key leaders of the federation are in
the SACP politburo or Central Committee. They are there to mortgage
the federation. They are not in the executive committee to represent
the workers, but the interests of the SACP. What made matters worse
was the election of key COSATU leaders onto the ANC national
executive committee'. Despite the noise made about unity at the top
of COSATU and many unionists' refusal to comment in public about deep
divides within the trade union federation, it is clear that it has
never been more vulnerable or fractured.
words, 'We cannot fight silly battles against one another when our
house is on fire'. COSATU's enemies are waiting like scavengers
sensing weakness. This is a political battle and reflects an
initiative taken by Zuma's allies to purge the Alliance of the
President's critics in the run-up to next year's national election.
At the centre
of this crisis is an ideological struggle for the soul of the
workers' movement and its future direction. Regardless of the victor,
while COSATU continues to put the ANC's political aims before its own
this crisis will remain unresolved. To protect their movement, COSATU
workers must stand up and openly resist the attempt to remove Vavi
and force the movement to toe the party line.