(File image) Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Photo: Bongiwe Mchunu

When Zwelinzima Vavi began to scale the moral high ground a couple of years ago, Cosatu’s political influence appeared to grow, but in hindsight, it may have been at the expense of the union federation, with its affiliates now beginning to position themselves around pro and anti-President Jacob Zuma factions.

Earlier this week, Vavi admitted that Cosatu was “eating itself up” because of the misplaced focus on the ANC’s leadership race, yet it is he who started it, in many respects. In 2009, after 10 years at the helm, Vavi announced that he did not want to become “a permanent or traditional leader” of Cosatu and would step down this September when the federation held its elections, “and then I will decide how and in what capacity I will continue to serve the working class and the people of South Africa”, prompting many to believe he was looking for a senior position within the ruling party.

Though he has since changed his tune, he unwittingly sparked a so-called succession battle within Cosatu and its affiliates from that time.

By then, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu had already warned of Cosatu’s democratic rupture in his book A Paradox of History, when he described how “leadership positions have become inscribed with power and privilege; hence the often acrimonious leadership contests for power and resources that have occurred within the unions in recent years”.

Top jobs within the federation allow leaders to “profile” themselves, he argued, with many of them aspiring to greener pastures when they exit Cosatu or its affiliates, such as Kgalema Motlanthe, Cyril Ramaphosa, Jay Naidoo and others. The trend not only erodes solidarity in the ranks of the unions, but introduces “an instrumental pragmatism, where support for the union is driven more by material benefits that members can extract from the union than by a genuine support for the policy positions that the union espouses”.

It’s a trend that lends itself to the wrong kind of political influence at the cost of organisational power.

In its political discussion paper a year later, Cosatu turned the concept on its head when it conceded that the moral authority it was gaining was not taking it very far.

By then, Vavi had begun to rail against the ANC’s predatory politics, but in that paper Cosatu warned that “we can’t rely on moral authority alone, otherwise we will gain influence but lose power”.

Two years on, Cosatu is at risk of losing power on both fronts, organisational and political. Last weekend, Frans Baleni only managed to retain his seat as the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) by a relatively small margin of 60 percent, “the first time this has happened in the history of NUM”, he conceded to The Sunday Independent this week.

Though Baleni refuses to put into words the reasons behind it, his opponent, Oupa Komane, was pushing for Zuma to be replaced as the leader of the ANC this year, while Baleni is widely seen as being a supporter of the incumbent.

As the largest of Cosatu’s 20 affiliates with a membership of 320 000, NUM is a considerable political force and “many of our members are also ANC members and belong to branches and can influence discussions at that level”, Baleni explained, though he insists their mandate is not to influence the leadership debate, but instead to push for union policy and the need to address the “triple crisis” of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Just how much overall Cosatu membership overlaps with ANC membership is not clear. Cosatu did not have figures to hand this week, but even if all of the federation’s members were also ANC cardholders, the numbers don’t stack up.

Cosatu currently has just over two million members on its books, while the ANC recorded a membership of 1.08 million on January 8 this year when it celebrated its centenary. Yet, Cosatu has still not managed to influence ANC economic policy in the way it has wanted to.

In 2003, the federation launched Plan 2015 in attempt to challenge the right-wing politics of the Thabo Mbeki era, not least by encouraging its members to swell the ranks of the ANC in a bid to influence policy and planning. Even if Cosatu were instrumental in unseating Mbeki five years ago, as many believe they were, they are still struggling to find a place at Zuma’s planning table.

They fought a hard battle against the costly e-tolling and forced the ANC to agree to delay the controversial project by a month while alternative funding solutions were sought, only to be snubbed by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe this week when he said it was not an agreement but a suggestion.

Their attempts to eradicate the practice of labour brokering have not been successful, while repeated calls for the policy of inflation targeting to be reviewed have gone unheard.

Of course, the policy elephant in the room is nationalisation and this is where Cosatu’s position becomes interesting.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), a proponent of nationalisation, begins its conference this morning in Durban where it will decide on the leadership and the policies that will take the union forward.

Like NUM, it is another big force in the federation with membership now sitting at 300 000, up from 2008 figures, according to general secretary Irvin Jim this week. Unlike NUM, however, Numsa’s conference is expected to focus more on policy than leadership, with Jim expected to hold on to his seat relatively unchallenged.

According to Jim, the conference is likely to produce a more hardened stance on nationalisation and he is unapologetic about playing the political card if it can help influence a shift in ANC macro-economic policy.

He points to emerging economies elsewhere in the world that “own and control their own minerals, through which they champion manufacturing and industrialisation, and that’s what South Africa has to do if we are to create jobs. The basic wealth has to be restored, but it has to be restored through the ANC.”

And yet, Jim is ambiguous about support for Zuma at the end of this year.

While he suggests that Numsa will push for continuity in leadership, he is adamant that the future leadership must be capable of transforming the country.

Baleni, on the other hand, has been more moderate about nationalisation.

While NUM favours state control of the mines, he is of the view that nationalisation must not be at the expense of the workers, fearful that at this point in time such a move could collapse the sector.

Cosatu has a similar view: nationalisation, but only under the right conditions, spokesman Patrick Craven said this week.

So where does that leave Vavi, and the immediate future of Cosatu? Vavi, who will turn 50 this year, is notably ambitious and he has made it known that he now wants to run for another term as general secretary this September.

Baleni had been touted as Vavi’s possible contender, but having just secured another three-year term, it is unlikely that his members would nominate him for the Cosatu job in three months’ time, as it would force him to resign from NUM. The same would apply to Jim, if he is re-elected this week.

For now, Vavi stands unopposed, but he is not without his challenges. He has lost his footing in the ANC these past few years with repeated criticism of the ruling party’s form of governance, lack of transparency and mounting corruption, and while that has earned him a solid profile in public, the union federation, once a firmly united bloc, is now splintering under his watch.

In the coming weeks he will also be forced to articulate his position on nationalisation ahead of the ANC’s policy conference. Though he has publicly endorsed state control, it has never been with the vigour that the likes of Jim have and this could well be the one policy position that breaks Cosatu’s back.

Ahead of Cosatu’s September conference, Vavi will also have to answer to his own members on the socio-economic conditions that he is failing to turn around. In a statement released this week, he noted that while youth make up 63 percent of the working population, they account for 72 percent of the unemployed, while 71 percent of the population and 44 percent of workers are living on less than R10 a day. In part, it is an admission that his moral authority has not brought him or Cosatu very far. It is also a reflection of the incongruous relationship between the federation and the ruling party and their decades old tensions.

A sum of Vavi’s comments these past few years would suggest so deep a departure from ANC policy and values that a split would seem inevitable, though he continues to rule that out.

For as long as he does so, both he and Cosatu will be resigned to the positions of moral crusaders.

Sunday Independent