Cosatu needs to find its way back to being a federation with workers interests foremost instead of making political battles its central focus, writes Jay Naidoo, the trade union groups first general secretary. File picture: Boxer Ngwenya

Cosatu should never have become a pawn in a greater political game of deadly chess; pawns are the easiest to sacrifice, writes Jay Naidoo.

Durban - Careerism is poisoning the lifeblood of Cosatu. Gone are the days when we were inspired by a passion for justice and human dignity. Volunteerism and discipline defined the struggles we fought.

As a volunteer organiser in the late 1970s, I remember standing outside the factory gates or hostels from early morning till late at night discussing issues with exhausted workers coming off shifts.

I remember those valuable lessons learnt from migrant workers, who often said to me: “You seem like a really committed comrade. But the pamphlet you distribute speaks about issues that workers have no interest in. And they don’t understand it. We are concerned with wages, unfair dismissals and abuse from the foreman. You have to start with the bread-and-butter issues that affect workers. Politics will come later.”

The backbone of Cosatu was built on the struggles of migrant workers. It was in those brutal hostel conditions where our first organisers met battle-scarred workplace activists and secretly plotted the path forward.

The dangers festered and we had to guard vigilantly against police, management informers and the inevitable victimisation.

Starting from these inauspicious beginnings, the strands eventually came together in a powerful movement, united in opposition to repression and a brutal regime that dehumanised South Africa and set us back decades.

Years of organisation building, education and training built an army of tens of thousands of Cosatu shop stewards, connected by an umbilical cord to the needs, aspirations and hopes of workers on the shop floor.

We were ready. We stood fist to fist to slug it out, in spite of many of our leaders being victimised and detained and our offices bombed. Our survival was driven from the ground, from the twin wells of understanding and commitment.

There was no Twitter, Facebook, e-mail or WhatsApp. We did not run our organisation through press conferences.

That dream was what crystallised on December 1, 1985, when Elijah Barayi was elected president and I the founding general secretary of Cosatu. We did not agree on every issue and had robust debates among the national office bearers, but we always acted as a team when we pursued the interests of our members. And not once did we ignore the grass-roots demand for debate on the federation’s decisions.

Turn the clock to 27 years later – August 16, 2012 and the bloody stain of the Marikana massacre. It is the pinnacle of a growing ferment in our land. The people in our workplaces, townships, rural areas and squatter camps are bitter that democracy has not delivered the fruits they see a tiny elite enjoying.

Our leaders are not talking to our people. They are not working systematically with them to solve their problems, in providing the hope that one day, even during their children’s lifetime, things will be better. It is a debilitating threat not from enemies outside, but those who lurk within our bosom.

Thousands of workers are deserting our Cosatu unions. They have lost trust in their branch leaders. I have been told: “Comrade, we do not see union organisers. We don’t know what is happening in our union. Our leaders are too involved in politics and we do not get the services and education we did in the past.”

It is true. Union leadership is more engaged in looking up to the political jockeying than down to the base of its members where its real strength on the shop floor should give it voice. We cannot hide the disunity and divisions.

The critical question is whether Cosatu has become part of the status quo, sucked into co-governing a political and economic system that is failing to deliver the promise of a better life we made to our people 20 years ago.

The ructions within affiliates and the federation are evidence of an organisation in decline. The explosion of full-time shop stewards, trustees of pension funds and boards of union investment companies has created a layer of bureaucracy and careerism that is increasingly detached from the worker base.

Has the election to the position of shop steward, union official, union office bearer or trustee of a pension fund become part of a system of patronage?

Are our leaders seduced by the positions on government sector education and training authorities, state-owned corporations, board positions and the free trips to exotic locations in exchange for delivering their constituencies to business interests or to their political paymasters?

Across many union investment companies we have seen the hazards of unions venturing into business. That grey area has largely become a toxic cesspool in which union tenderpreneurs, commission-taking sharks and scam artists swim. Most of these companies have no levels of accountability to the union structures and most benefit individuals and the union elites.

As activists we studied Gramsci, especially in reference to his notion of “the iron law of oligarchy”. Is the union movement part of the system? Are the layers of union leadership, percolating down to the shop steward level, being sucked into a system of patronage that defends a corrupt system?

I do not ask these questions out of some ulterior political motive. I harbour a deep commitment to social and economic justice. While my Cosatu days are over, and this is a different time, the principle remains the same: only the workers can answer the burning questions of the modern union’s nature, structure and leadership. It was true then and it is true today.

It was never supposed to happen this way. Cosatu should never have become a pawn in a greater political game of deadly chess; pawns are always the first and easiest to sacrifice.

Sadly, in a country that is facing as many problems as South Africa does, Cosatu is but one example of a general decline that is afflicting the country.

The issues it is facing are not much different from the issues that affect the lives of all citizens.

Many people are losing trust in their leaders; Cosatu is no different. But the question that is burning in my mind today is: Did Cosatu lose trust in itself?

* Jay Naidoo was the first general secretary of Cosatu and a minister in the first democratic government in 1994.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Mercury