Amid unprecedented media interest, Cosatu’s 11th national congress gets under way in Midrand on Monday. Many of the nearly 300 journalists, photographers and members of camera crews accredited to attend the event are clearly expecting drama.
Such expectations and interest are understandable, given the present turmoil in the mining sector and the proximity of the ANC elective conference in Mangaung in December, let alone the ongoing anti-union antics of former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.
Cosatu members, after all, often play prominent roles in ANC branches that will start their nomination processes for the ANC leadership before month end.
It is also no secret that there are daggers drawn between different union leaderships on the basis of who supports and who opposes a second term for President Jacob Zuma. As such, the Cosatu gathering has been portrayed quite widely as a “mini Mangaung”.
But the likelihood of such matters reaching the congress floor in any seriously acrimonious sense are slim. Even slimmer is the much-mooted chance of a challenge being mounted against Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
Vavi has played the role of a serious critic and maverick from time to time, only to confound this by what has been described as politically schizophrenic expressions of loyalty to the political status quo. But his apparently contradictory statements have merely been examples of the over-riding concept of unity at all costs that has for decades governed the broad church that is the ANC-led alliance.
This approach has always meant that differences within the alliance, even on matters of principle, should be resolved “within the family”, often by sweeping them under the carpet.
It is a hangover from the clandestine organisation of the exile years when the sole object was the defeat of apartheid, a goal supported by elements of the political left, right and centre.
As both a broad church and the major movement opposed to apartheid, the ANC also laid claim to be the only “true representative of the South African people”.
This latter claim was never true, but it was also imported into the new dispensation, with claims that any who did not support the ANC or its alliance partners were not only mistaken, they were the enemy.
If you are not for us, you are against us, was and – to a surprisingly large degree – still is the attitude of many within the governing alliance.
It is this that has bred intolerance, arrogance and complacency at various levels and has helped to bring about much of the fragmentation and tension now tearing at the fabric of the broad church.
But unity for the trade union element of the alliance is seen now as even more important than ever.
As the almost daily protests and clashes around the country have shown, there is considerable anger on the ground, the cause of it best summed up in two words: poverty and joblessness.
Marikana was merely the most tragic example of what is happening from Khayelitsha to Kuruman and beyond.
The desire to escape penury is the common motivation for the residents of the shack farms surrounding Marikana and other mines and the protesters who have thrown up burning barricades across numerous roads around the country.
They are the working and workless poor who make up an unorganised army of the dispossessed, who should be the natural constituency of the labour movement.
That the movement has lost touch with much of this constituency was highlighted by the ease with which Malema was able to exploit the anger, insecurity and frustration of working miners.
As this has unfolded, there has also been a great deal of nonsense talked about wage levels, with former president FW de Klerk claiming that miners earn in excess of R11 000 a month.
Cosatu unions, in particular, were put on the back foot by such claims. And one of their failings was not to adequately respond, even if only to point out that De Klerk’s “cost to the company” figure went well beyond wages and was an average that included the many millions paid to executives and managers.
Belatedly there seems to be a realisation that the initial focus on attacking rival unions was a mistake; that a united, coherent response to the bread and butter issues that affect both miners and other workers should have been the best way forward.
It could have been stressed that while miners top the league for minimum pay agreements, their minimum, up to this year, was just R4 311 a month.
In a country with a probably realistic unemployment rate of 40 percent or more, the number of dependents every worker supports also tends to be high. And all share the common burden of the cost of food, transport, school fees and medical expenses.
Price hikes on such costs have generally exceeded wage rises, meaning that many workers have, effectively, suffered pay cuts. Over the past three years a basic basket of groceries, measured for several years by this column, has risen by 40 percent.
And this is before the latest fuel price rises have fed through to the rest of the economy and before the further increases in the prices of wheat and maize have fully been felt.
It is this minimum or low-wage factor – and the poor living conditions that flow from it – that provides fuel for the fires of rebellion and the demand for change.
Traditionally, disgruntled elements have turned to the major labour movement for support. But it is clear that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has lost credibility with a large part of its constituency, and the events that followed have been a wake-up call for both NUM and Cosatu.
As a result, the last thing Cosatu affiliates will want is a display of disunity at congress as they try, in fact, to get back to basics and rectify obvious shortcomings.
However, these are volatile times and a maverick element could always intrude.