Former National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) president Senzeni Zokwana has joined President Jacob Zumas ruling party in Parliament. File photo: Dumisani Sibeko

Johannesburg - South Africa’s largest trade union federation is rent down the middle and faces the prospect of a damaging split over its relationship with the government. But this has not given its senior leaders pause for thought about the wisdom of their regular mass exoduses into the state.

Cosatu and its affiliates have lost 12 senior leaders to Parliament and the provincial legislatures, including union presidents and a general secretary. In addition, President Jacob Zuma is set to increase the number of union leaders and communists in his cabinet.

Although in theory it has generally been thought that greater representation in the government will further the cause of workers, the evidence of the last twenty years suggests otherwise.

Under Zuma’s first term, unionists did score some big goals, but they were weak on implementation. They won the battle to have long-term planning established in the government; cabinet was reconfigured, including splitting education into two and moving the sector education and training authorities from labour to higher education, and further education and training was prioritised to improve skills.

Other gains include: the National Health Insurance Scheme has fiscal commitment; reindustrialisation through large-scale infrastructure spending is the cornerstone of economic planning; the Expanded Public Works Programme is in its second phase; and there is more focus on regional trade. All of these represent a departure from former president Thabo Mbeki’s market-driven approach to economic planning, and are long-standing demands of Cosatu and the SACP.

But some of these victories are partial, and even when they are at the centre of the state, unionists and communists have fallen short on implementation. Their ‘victory’ for long-term planning in the state is a case in point. The SACP and Cosatu have long called for a national planning commission (NPC) at the very centre of the state, to decide and popularise a vision for the country going forward, and to prevent economic policy becoming an ad hoc response to market forces.

But when the NPC was finally agreed to, it was not constituted as a government department or a well-resourced unit in the presidency, as the ANC’s left allies had wanted. Rather it became a separate, ‘advisory’ committee presided over by a ‘Planning Minister’ who did not have a ministry. To add insult to this injury, the man Zuma put in charge of this new planning function was Mbeki’s ex-finance minister Trevor Manuel, whom the left had long regarded as the South African face of global neo-liberalism.

Predictably, the long-term plan that resulted from the NPC’s work was not at all what the left allies had desired. Manuel’s National Development Plan (NDP) was rejected by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and other Cosatu affiliates, as an ode to neoliberal economics.

For its part, Cosatu has dilly-dallied, not wanting to align itself to the NDP, but reluctant to reject the outcome of a process it has spent years lobbying for. Almost two years after the launch of the NDP document, the SACP still does not have a coherent analysis of it.

As the NDP example shows, the ANC’s allies get sucked into the ruling party’s narrow policy agenda, with some literally bought off, and they often do not have the capacity to fill critical positions, and they do not leverage their power in ANC and government forums such as the economic transformation committee.

But Cosatu’s affiliates continue to send their leaders into government, with a belief that they can truly make a difference. In the meantime, unions are weakened, some considerably.

“Why repeat something that has continued to fail? Unless somehow history is going to reverse itself, there is no point,” says Steven Friedman, the director for the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes and the University of Johannesburg.

He says unionists are elected as ANC parliamentarians, not worker representatives. And in the SACP, if you are not part of the establishment, you are considered radical.

The National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) is losing the most members to Parliament and the provincial legislatures. They include general secretary Fikile Majola, national treasurer Pulani Mogotsi, first deputy president Joe Mpisi and second deputy president Priscilla Mantashe.

Although Nehawu maintains it is not fishing in a shallow pool for leadership, it will especially need strong leadership this year with the start of the public sector wage negotiations.

The public sector is the largest employer in the country and the battle for a decent wage hike is going to be protracted and difficult. The government will want to tighten the purse strings considering stagnant economic growth and the weak rand.

“We are confident that they will give a voice to the working class issues and raise the red flag with integrity and discipline,” Nehawu spokesman Sizwe Pamla said.

“(We) have one of the most experienced NECs (national executive committees) and CECs (central executive committees) in the trade union movement. We will continue to be not only a formidable workers organisation, but a political university that produces leaders to lead both the working class organisations and the entire nation.”

The other big loss to the trade union movement is National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) president Senzeni Zokwana. However, NUM will not be as affected as Nehawu because general secretaries drive unions.

But NUM should be concerned about the perception it is creating among its members that the union’s bosses are too close to employers and the state, and the growing view that a NUM office is a stepping stone to a cushy job in the ANC.

NUM has been losing members to the rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), and the union’s relationship with employers and the state is often the reason cited by its members for abandoning it.

NUM and labour in general are also going to face a tough year because the government and business have started suggesting changes to the Labour Relations Act, specifically to minimise the power of unions.

Whether Cosatu will be willing and fit to fight back against those moves, following a mass leadership exodus and possibly a split, remains to be seen.

Business Report