Cosatu ’must retrieve its history, redefine role’

From its inception, Cosatu had a clear mandate – to advance the interests of the workers, says the writer. Picture: Werner Beukes/Sapa/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

From its inception, Cosatu had a clear mandate – to advance the interests of the workers, says the writer. Picture: Werner Beukes/Sapa/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Apr 3, 2022


By Bheki Mngomezulu

On December 1, 1985, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) was established in Durban (now known as eThekwini), in KwaZulu-Natal.

This marked the culmination of talks that had been taking place for four years among progressive trade unions, that were vehemently opposed to the apartheid regime.

From the beginning of 1973, the country had experienced intermittent strikes, which were the epitome of the revival of trade union activity. Unions had been inactive for over 10 years. This was due mainly to the oppressive laws of the notorious apartheid regime which suppressed any form of dissent – be it political or trade union-induced.

Having made up their mind about taking their oppressors head-on, various unions vowed to soldier on and to make their contribution to creating a non-sexist, non-racial and democratic South Africa, that would be devoid of white supremacy which was already rampant at the time.

During this period, organisations such as the ANC and the PAC had been silenced by the apartheid government. Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe (now known as Inkatha Freedom Party or IFP), which was formed in 1975, was the voice of the liberation movement, albeit operating under strict conditions.

The ANC-aligned United Democratic Front (UDF) formed in 1983, was also vibrant. Unfortunately, the UDF had sour relations with Inkatha in general, and with Prince Buthelezi in particular.

From its inception, Cosatu had a clear mandate – to advance the interests of the workers. It believed that all workers should be organised into one strong national industrial union. This had to be done in each industry, across the country.

The organisers envisaged a strong workers’ movement that would be able to challenge the white minority, who continued to amass wealth at the expense of the black majority. These arguments were political.

All the trade unions wanted was a fair share of the country’s economy and the reconfiguration of the political landscape, which was the source of all the challenges faced by the working class.

From this synopsis, it is clear that Cosatu shared the same views with the liberation movement. Like the ANC and the PAC, Cosatu was averse to the white minority taking decisions on behalf of the black majority. It did not come as a surprise when Cosatu formed an alliance with the ANC and the SACP – as well as Sanco. After its formation, Cosatu became visible.

Its leaders became co-ordinators of workers and organised a number of strikes that were meant to destabilise the country’s economy. In a way, Cosatu was saddled with the responsibility to keep the momentum in the country, while all political movements were in exile.

When these organisations were allowed back into the country, following FW de Klerk’s ascension to the presidency in 1989, they worked with Cosatu, in the Tripartite Alliance – comprising the ANC, SACP and Cosatu.

The expulsion of Numsa in November 2014, and the subsequent expulsion of Cosatu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, set Cosatu on a new path. Unlike before, when it was united and spoke in one voice on workers’ issues, there were now evident divisions.

Another important factor is that some of the leaders of Cosatu were elevated by being moved to Parliament. These included Mbhazima Shilowa and Membathisi Mdladlana, among others.

The two incidents left Cosatu disoriented. It is within this context that I interrogate Cosatu’s role in the current political and socio-economic situation in South Africa. As a point of departure, Cosatu must retrieve its history and remind itself why it was established in the first place. In so doing, it must revisit its founding goals and check if it has not derailed.

Should Cosatu want to reconfigure itself, this should be done openly and deliberately. Posing as a trade union, but primarily enmeshing itself in ANC squabbles and presenting itself as the kingmaker on the eve of each and every election, will lead to an identity crisis.

By using Cosatu as the ladder to get into government, leaders will compromise this federation and further weaken it. Pushing Cosatu members to go to Parliament will mean that the federation will find it difficult to espouse the wishes of the workers – which should be its primary focus.

Once in Parliament, these Cosatu-sponsored MPs and Cabinet ministers will abandon the ideals which Cosatu stands for. In recent years, the SACP has been threatening not to support ANC in the election – with some saying that the SACP will contest the election as a separate entity and not as part of the Tripartite Alliance.

With Cosatu’s numbers, the SACP could upset the ANC. But is this what Cosatu wants to do? The federation needs to redefine itself.

* Mngomezulu is a Professor of Political Science and the Deputy Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape.