Walking a tightrope in an ever changing workers' world
Opinion / 19 September 2018, 10:30am / Sechaba ka'Nkosi
JOHANNESBURG – The late Cosatu president John Gomomo loved Jabu Xulu and Cynthia Gumede. Whenever he got a chance, Gomomo took pains to place Xulu and Gumede at the centre of the country’s national psyche.
He said it was the duty of the union movement and Cosatu in particular to use all avenues of institutions to defend the growth, equity and participation of workers such as Xulu and Gumede.
Gomomo observed that workers have remained on the periphery of the economy, even when the country’s empowerment laws had opened up space for the new middle class that was predominantly black. They could not, like this new class, redefine post-apartheid South Africa’s new economic patterns.
They could not drive spending and boost consumption, so that the economy and business could forever be grateful as the country’s gross domestic product per capita improved and bottom lines fattened.
They were too far from what many saw as a win-win arrangement that South Africa could transplant into its new genetics and give itself high-fives for a job well done.
Gomomo, however, warned that any progress would be quickly wiped out if it failed to extend its benefits to the lives of Xulu and Gumede.
He said policies should be canvassed properly with the Xulus and the Gumedes and not imposed on them, charging that this was how relations with the democratic government would be judged. He argued that while the labour movement harboured no ambitions to co-govern with the ruling party, it wanted the governed to engage with the government directly, and for the government to justify its policies to them.
Gomomo’s reassessment marked a new era on where the labour movement should locate itself in a democracy.
He said that the union movement would co-operate, but would not be forced to accept policies such as the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) framework as they represented a strategic retreat to the right.
The stance put the federation on a new path and ushered in a new era in future relations with both the government and organised business.
Gomomo would later pass on in 2008, after a stint in Parliament as an ANC MP.
And with his death went the militancy of the labour movement as a powerful lobby group.
Since then, worker power has given way to individualism that has seen Cosatu wracked by divisions never seen before in its 32 years of existence.
Unions have not only become a career opportunity for leaders, they have also provided easy access to investment arms that they have founded, and there’s a big fight on who gets the bigger slice of the pie. Workers like Xulu and Gumede remain condemned further into the periphery.
In the meantime, leaders live in the same affluence that suburbs such as Morningside in Sandton provide to the elite.
One unionist became an instant millionaire after allegedly securing a lucrative labour brokerage deal with Sasol. This is the movement that Zingiswa Losi will inherit from her predecessor Sdumo Dlamini.
It is a movement fraught with divisions and internecine strife over resources that have cost Cosatu more than 600000 members in the past five years alone, and have moved its ambitious plan to push its membership to 4million to the backburners.
It is a movement that has opened up space for parasites, like the Guptas, to steal from the workers and for fringe groups such as Solidarity to try and reverse the gains that Gomomo fought to secure for Jabu Xulu and Cynthia Gumede.
Solidarity has been bold enough to challenge empowerment programmes so that its members, who benefited from apartheid laws such as job reservations, benefit again from the new dispensation.
It has cleverly worked hand-in-hand with lunatics such as AfriForum to find loopholes in the law in order to launch a legal assault on progressive policies such as affirmative action and employment equity.
The SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), the one federation that can reclaim the union movement, remains too trapped in the 1920s rhetoric of the Bolshevik revolution to mount any discernible defence for the rights that workers such as Jabu Xulu and Cynthia Gumede have enjoyed since 1994.
Losi will also have to deal with the changing dynamics of the workplace, where power brokers have replaced permanent jobs and mechanised factory floors have become a reality.
The hostile market that Gomomo always warned about will also not be any kinder to her as the mining and manufacturing industries continue to bleed jobs and inflationary pressures pile more problems on the working class.
Losi has the ability to chart the new path for the workers.
She is highly intelligent, experienced and well regarded within the union movement.
Her tenure as the first female president of the largest federation in the country will be largely judged on how fast she is able to reposition it in a changed socio-economic terrain.
In the highly masculine territory, Losi’s fate will forever be linked to her gender.
She has her work cut out.
As they say in the land of the free, she has a bull’s eyes on her back.
And if she fails she will be judged much harsher than the bungles of the secretary-general of a once-powerful movement, who, despite turning a highly influential office into a laughing stock, buts still wields enormous power and influence.