Over the past 20 years, much has been said about the “challenges” that South African trade unions face, about them being “at the crossroads”, and how deep “in crisis” they are.

But few of the commentators – sympathetic observers and ardent critics – ever imagined that things could get as dangerously explosive as they have turned out over the past 20 months.

At one end of the spectrum one finds several unaffiliated and usually small unions which suffer terminal lack of credibility and organisational viability.

These are often one-man shows led by cynical entrepreneurs who have discovered the money-making potential of trade unionism. Many are not registered with the Department of Labour, nor do they get their books audited on a regular basis.

Then there are slightly bigger unions, some affiliated to Nactu, Consawu and Fedusa, which have a significant presence in some sectors. These unions and their federations seem incapable of shaking off the small union syndrome that has characterised them over the last 20 years or so.

They have demonstrably failed to develop a profile and make an impact for the benefit of their members. Nor have they been able to take advantage of the decline and weakness of their stronger rivals, most affiliated to Cosatu. Even Solidarity, which at some point showed promise, has not been able to see beyond ethnic politics and the protection of white privilege.

This brings us to the other end of the spectrum inhabited by the largest sector-based unions, virtually all of them affiliated to Cosatu and suffering a malaise of their own.

The trailblazing role played by Cosatu, its affiliates and predecessors since the 1970s is well documented. It is also common cause that the unions inserted themselves strategically in the new dispensation and played a constructive role alongside the new democratically elected government.

But Cosatu and its unions lost the plot. They became arrogant, big-headed and displayed authoritarian tendencies. They turned unions into political formations and intolerance flourished. Political opponents and competitors were purged while critics were hounded and silenced. Allies, including intellectuals, were chosen on the basis of their willingness to toe the political line of the tripartite alliance. Sadly, all the unions, including the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, displayed these tendencies at one point or another.

At the same time, the ethos of trade unionism was undergoing a fundamental transformation. Altruistic activism was replaced by individualism, greed and, in some cases, corruption. The taking of bribes and the involvement of trade union leaders in dubious business deals became commonplace. Union positions, from shop steward up, became sources of power and privilege and, therefore, sources for political competition and in-fighting.

The rot was exacerbated by the decline in the organisational strength of trade unions. Many of the younger and more recent union activists were no longer steeped in the organising tradition that helped build unions into the colossal social organisations they had become.

First to be eroded was the practice of face-to-face interaction between members and leaders through membership general meetings, which had over the decades become platforms for obtaining new mandates and reporting back on developments.

The newer generation of activists subscribed to the view that bargaining and other policy matters had become more complex and were beyond the ken of the ordinary worker attending a general meeting. Some even developed contempt for the members they purported to represent.

In this context, large union gatherings became choreographed ritual and commercial events – uniform dress codes (colourful T-shirts, caps and congress bags), carefully draped conference halls, singing, corporate sponsorships and advertising, especially by pension and medical funds, burial schemes and funeral undertakers.

In due course, most union activists became apparatchiks concerned with serving the party and ensuring their own mobility. Over the past two years or so, three developments unfolded that can safely be regarded as turning points for Cosatu, its affiliates and members. All three are a metaphor for the slow-motion implosion of trade union organisation in post-apartheid South Africa – what many today euphemistically refer to as challenges, crises or the crossroads.

The first is the collapse of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) organisation in the platinum belt and the subsequent contestation that culminated in the massacre of Lonmin mineworkers in Marikana by the police. The real issue about these events is the collapse of NUM following the large-scale rejection of the union by its members. The massacre was an extraordinary step by the government to use brutal force to intervene in a conventional industrial dispute to protect the monopoly of NUM in the industry.

There had been some equally violent strikes in the past, particularly in the public, municipal and security sectors, and the state never unleashed similar forms of premeditated violence to crush a strike!

The second development involved the emergence of explosive divisions within the federation. Once again, the suspension of general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi following the office sex scandal surrounding a junior union official was a symptom rather than a cause of the division.

The divisions were there long before the current investigation into allegations of impropriety against Vavi and his subsequent suspension. They are a spill-over from those in the ANC alliance.

A pattern had been set by the ignominious dismissal of then Cosatu president Willie Madisha, who sided with Thabo Mbeki during the latter’s tussle with Jacob Zuma. Ironically, Vavi led the charge against Madisha and, curiously, an enquiry led by lawyer Charles Nupen was used to legitimise the palace coup. (Intriguingly, Nupen is now part of an enquiry into Vavi’s administrative and political conduct.)

The contestation around the Vavi scandal has spiralled out of control and it is no longer a question of whether the federation is splitting, but rather which of the factions will inherit the Cosatu mantle.

The final development concerns a court case where workers sued their union and won. On October 9, 2013, the Constitutional Court made a ruling in a case in which two members of the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), a Cosatu affiliate, sued the union for damages for failing to defend their jobs. The case goes back to 2002 when Mandla Ndlela (who has since died) and Michael Mkhize were dismissed by Nestlé.

The union represented them at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, which issued a certificate of non-resolution, clearing the way for the case to be taken to the Labour Court.

But the 90 days referral period lapsed before the union could act. Meantime, it kept telling the workers that the case was in process. After a year the workers discovered the truth, sued the union at the high court and won the case.

In passing judgment, the high court said that had the case been brought before the Labour Court the dismissal would have been found to have been “procedurally and substantively unfair”. Fawu appealed the judgment at the Supreme Court of Appeal and lost again. The union then took the matter to the Constitutional Court, arguing that because members were not charged for legal services and because union officials were generally not legally qualified, it had to act on behalf of its members as a collective and not just on behalf of individuals.

It also invoked the Labour Relations Act (section 200) and argued that a union had the power to act in its own interests, even if such actions went against the interests of individual members.

The consequences of the above is that trade unions have squandered the goodwill and moral authority that they used to enjoy among the working class and other sections of society. Their failure to rein in their members during industrial actions as well as their perceived lack of concern for vulnerable sections of society during these actions has blighted their record.

Their association with a government increasingly characterised by ineptitude and graft has made many doubt their commitment to democracy and social justice. Most baffling is the silence of trade unions – all of them, big and small – on the atrocity of Marikana.

The malaise is too deep. Unions need to remake or reinvent themselves if there is going to be any hope for their future. Such reinvention will have to be more thorough than what we have seen in the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). Indeed, Amcu seems to be repeating the same mistakes as its older siblings and is, therefore, doomed from the start.

As far as the “Numsa moment” is concerned, it is too early to tell whether it will lead to a thorough make-over. I remain sceptical but hopeful.

* Sakhela Buhlungu is a professor of sociology and dean of the faculty of humanities at UCT.