Former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. File picture: Nokuthula Mbatha

Johannesburg - Cosatu’s special national congress, which kicks off on Monday, will be the federation’s first meeting where South Africans will see how much dissent there really is against the dominant group in the federation from within the ordinary rank and file.

Since September 2013, when a third of Cosatu’s unions requested the meeting to debate the future direction of the federation and vote in new leaders, there have been all kinds of claims of support from both sides.

While there were initially nine unions that backed the call for the congress, this number has been whittled down.

Only four unions are still boycotting Cosatu’s top-level meetings and others have returned saying they believe the battle needs to be fought from both within and out of the federation.

But leaders from the factions maintain unions themselves are divided and the 2 559 delegates attending the meeting could give an idea on how big the rebellion is.

Those aligned to Zwelinzima Vavi and metalworkers union, Numsa, who were driving the opposition in Cosatu and have since been expelled, are planning on insisting their axing be placed on the agenda.

But Cosatu’s leaders have adopted a hardline stance, warning they will be thrown out if they do not respect the rules of the congress.

“Cosatu has got to spell out succinctly, very clearly… it is not for a United Front, but for a united Cosatu. It will not entertain any attempt to call for an appeal discussion on Numsa and Vavi because those matters are for the ordinary congress.

“Should people push a discussion leading to the congress voting on whatever issue they are raising, they must accept when they are defeated they must never again raise it in the future. They must just accept it,” Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini said in an interview with Independent Media.

If it is only the delegates from the four unions who attempt to change the agenda, they stand no chance as they are by far in the minority.

The SA Football Players Union has 592 members, the SA State and Allied Workers Union 6 099, the Food and Allied Workers Union 127 000 and the SA Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu) 120 352.

Without Numsa, Cosatu has nearly 1.9 million members, organised in 18 affiliates.

The rebels may get support from the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA and the Communication Workers Union who are unhappy about Numsa’s expulsion.

The federation’s meetings have always been robust.

But now with leaders making it clear the agenda will not be changed and rebels boycotted meetings to shape what would be discussed, there are questions around the point of the meeting.

As things stand, and if the leadership’s stance prevails, tomorrow’s very expensive exercise – the budget is more than R6 million – will do nothing to deal with the divisions that made the meeting necessary in the first place.

It is unlikely Cosatu will emerge from it any more united.

Not that the federation can afford such an empty exercise. Cosatu’s finances are in a shambles and it has had to cut costs in various areas.

Dlamini would not be drawn on where the federation had managed to find funding for the congress.

“I can only say we have really had to go out and look for the money. It was not in the budget. Unions have also had to really try something out of their budgets,” he said.

Besides disagreement among Cosatu’s affiliates over the political direction of the federation and if it has really become the labour desk of the ANC, there is also disunity because many of its affiliates are in a state of disarray, with some facing down the financial precipice.

The federation has also not reached its goal of increasing its membership base to 4 million by 2015 and instead has lost members due to Numsa’s axing as well as affiliates bleeding members to non-Cosatu unions and new breakaways.

South Africa’s economic stagnation, accompanied by what Cosatu has called “the jobs bloodbath”, has also made a serious dent in the numbers.

Asked if it was not time that Cosatu cleaned house, Dlamini said the federation was exploring various possibilities, including having unionists trained in how to work with money.

It has already made a number of interventions in some of the affiliates in trouble.

He said in the SA Trade and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) “there has been much progress” in helping leaders realise that infighting was leading to it losing members to Numsa.

This year Satawu Gauteng secretary Chris Nkosi was shot dead and president June Dube’s house was petrol bombed. Dlamini revealed that five other houses of Satawu leaders in other parts of the country had also been torched.

At Saccawu, which was facing liquidation for R30m it owed an investment company, Cosatu had recently intervened and convinced the Financial Services Board and the fund’s curator Anthony Mostert to allow the union pay back R500 000 a month.

Mostert had also agreed to knock R4m off the money owed.

The federation was also working to ensure that the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union (Ceppwawu) was not placed under administration by the Labour Department.

The union is riddled with infighting over money and has failed to hold regular meetings for five years.

On the whole, Dlamini is upbeat about the outcome of the two-day special congress which kicks off at Gallagher Convention Centre tomorrow.

He believes that if Cosatu’s four provincial congresses ahead of this meeting are anything to go by, debate will be robust, but there will be an outcome delegates agree to.

Five of the provinces, including the Eastern Cape which is the stronghold of the rebels, still have to meet ahead of the normal congress at the end of November.

Dlamini said unlike Cosatu’s central executive committee, the dissenters have been participating in the provincial gatherings.

However, a statement issued by these unions on Friday makes it clear that there is going to be a fight.

“It is standard practice that one of the first items of any agenda of any congress of any federation meeting must be the adoption of the agenda – with room to move amendments,” they said.

If the rebels are defeated, they may be left with no choice but to follow through on their threats of forming an alternative federation.

Labour Bureau