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We are witnessing the mighty giant that was Cosatu being reduced to a dwarf, says Sakhela Buhlungu.
Johannesburg - ‘A giant is born!’ proclaimed Cyril Ramaphosa boldly as he opened the inaugural congress of Cosatu in December 1985. Fast-forward to the eve of the federation’s 28th birthday, and we are witnessing the same giant being reduced to a dwarf within a very short space of time.
How might we explain this cataclysmic turn of events for South Africa’s largest union body?
Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine a day when a union such as the National Union of Mineworkers would face such a humiliating defeat as we are seeing in the platinum sector, or when the general secretary of the federation would be ejected (well, for the moment) for what sounds like a jobs-for-sex scandal.
Are we seeing the realisation of the worst elements of the 1997 September Commission’s scenarios, Skorokoro and The Desert?
The organisational meltdown in Cosatu can be understood in terms of three broad explanations – organisational, political and economic.
There is no doubt that the organisational architecture that makes up the federation has been under severe stress, particularly over the past 10 years.
The much-publicised “worker control” model, whereby workers control union structures through processes of mandating and report-backs, has virtually collapsed.
As a result, union decision-making has now become a top-down affair, with national leaders deciding what the mandate should be.
Internal union education and training has ceased, and general meetings with members are a thing of the past in many unions.
Indeed, so dire is the service to members that the food and the education and health affiliates have been taken to court by members for failing to defend them, while those in mining and transport are facing competition from splinter unions.
The demarcation of sectors as envisaged in the federation’s “one union, one industry” policy is collapsing rapidly as unions organise or poach members across their designated sectors.
A case in point is the National Union of Metalworkers of SA’s organising campaign in energy and mining, which is a sore point for the National Union of Mineworkers, and is among the reasons the mining union is baying for Vavi’s blood.
Over and above these are a myriad other organisational issues – such as corruption, incompetence of organisers, competition for leadership positions, ethnic conflicts, and collusion with employers at the expense of workers.
Of course, the quest for upward mobility is one of the main drivers of these problems, and a main contributor to the neglect of organisation-building.
In a context such as this, improper sexual relations are common, as those in leadership positions or with money generally use their power to extract sexual favours.
Vavi was simply unlucky to get caught, as many others engage in similar, and even more brazen, instances of abuse of positions.
But Cosatu’s woes extend beyond internal organisational difficulties. The politics of the tripartite alliance has been at the heart of Cosatu’s problems for a while now.
Remember when then-Cosatu president Willy Madisha was ejected for “bringing the organisation into disrepute” by supporting Thabo Mbeki when the general drift was in favour of Jacob Zuma?
Remember, too, the incident in June 2010 when the ANC threatened to discipline Vavi for criticising Zuma and some of his ministers?
Cosatu has been warned on countless occasions that a blank cheque alliance with a governing party contains many dangers.
But they have ignored these warnings, arguing instead that they cannot be compared with other unions in Africa and other developing countries.
Yet evidence presented in a book we published in 2010 shows that all unions face the risk of marginalisation and subordination by the ruling party. There can be no doubt that Cosatu’s allies have been irritated by the bold and militant rhetoric of Vavi and others such as Numsa’s Irvin Jim.
Over the past few years, the ANC and the SACP have taken steps to win over some Cosatu leaders by co-opting them into their top structures, and to isolate those who are not amenable to such action.
Vavi is clearly a victim of this, and there was no way he could last in an environment where virtually all Cosatu central executive committee members are active members, or even national executive committee or central committee members, of the ANC and SACP respectively.
The sex scandal came as a godsend, and there is no doubt they will exploit it fully.
The current economic climate is the third dimension contributing to the federation’s present challenges.
The constituency in which the federation organises is feeling the squeeze in an economy performing poorly in the context of workplace restructuring, technological change and high unemployment.
It was this restlessness that triggered the events in the Rustenburg area long before the Marikana tragedy, while Cosatu’s mining affiliate continued to produce improbable conspiracy theories and pontificate from a distance.
The reality is that workers in dire economic circumstances begin to get a sense of relative deprivation and start exploring other avenues to improve their lot, particularly when their union is ineffectual.
Furthermore, workers hear the stories about some of the shaft stewards, regional and national leaders’ generous earnings and relatively lavish lifestyles. That is why the “Five Madoda” committees and later the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union emerged on the platinum mines.
The brutal response of the state to what was essentially an industrial action has resulted in the state, the ruling ANC, the SACP (which continues to demonise the workers as vigilantes) and Cosatu leaders being perceived as unsympathetic to the workers’ economic plight.
This past week, all three dimensions converged in three rather tragic ways.
The workers of Marikana commemorated the first anniversary of the 2012 killings and received widespread expressions of sympathy and solidarity from far and wide.
But Cosatu, the ANC and the SACP were conspicuous by their absence, while other political parties jostled for front seats at the event.
Many fingers continue to be pointed at President Jacob Zuma and his government for what is the first government massacre of citizens in the post-apartheid period.
But what many do not mention is that Marikana is an indictment of Cosatu, and therefore represents a tragic and dark chapter in the federation’s history.
It is a case of terrible failure by the leadership, and the least it can do is to attend the commemoration and begin the healing process.
Future generations will regard this as a missed opportunity of re-uniting the labour movement.
The second development was the suspension of Vavi as general secretary of Cosatu and his subsequent announcement that he will challenge the suspension in court.
Many, including those who disagree with him, are saddened by these developments, because he was seen to represent something morally superior to what we see in most of our politicians.
In a strange way, many pinned their hopes for the future on him.
Sadly, Vavi has his own flaws. He has run the federation on a tight leash, and some would argue he did not brook any opposition from his subordinates. He also presided over the dishonourable discharge of several leaders, chief among them former vice-president Peter Malepe and former president Willy Madisha.
In the past, he managed to wriggle free of accusations of impropriety, including one of using a union credit card to hire a car for his then-girlfriend, now wife. In short, Vavi is not entirely a victim in the current circumstances. The people he claims are “rubbing salt” into his wounds are not only his political enemies, but also his current and past victims and casualties.
The third was the revelation of an “intelligence report” linking Vavi and several others to a plot to overthrow the government.
Whatever one thinks of this report, the fact of the matter is that the use of state resources that was a major grievance against Thabo Mbeki’s administration continues unabated under Zuma, and probably to an even greater degree.
Whatever we think of these developments, Cosatu is the casualty and the workers are the losers
* Buhlungu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pretoria and co-editor of Cosatu’s Contested Legacy (HSRC ).
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.