224 National Union of Municipal workers of South Africa members and supporters held a peaceful picket outside COSATU House in Braamfontein near Johannesburg where the Federation had a special Central Executive Committee. Here they sing and chant freedom songs. 080414 Picture: Boxer Ngwenya

There is no real difference between ANC members and Cosatu members. So a divided Cosatu translates into a divided ANC, says Jovial Rantao.

Johannesburg - The ANC played an impressive political masterstroke this week. When the gloves came off and the leadership of the country’s largest trade union federation – Cosatu – seemed ready to hit each other, yet again, with a live snake, to borrow an ancient African saying, the ANC intervened.

In essence, the ANC got involved to save Cosatu from itself. The union has for the past few months been disintegrating, destroyed by divisions brought about by the suspension of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

However, if truth be told, in saving Cosatu the ANC was saving itself. There is no real difference between ANC members and Cosatu members. They are one and the same thing. So a divided Cosatu literally translates into a divided ANC.

Historically, South Africans who are members of the ANC and members of unions affiliated to Cosatu have naturally supported the ANC in, first, the struggle against apartheid and, second, every election since 1994.

Workers, as represented by Cosatu, have, over the years, grown into a formidable stakeholder, forcing the ANC to take Cosatu more seriously than it did before. The union federation also became a strong force within the ANC-led tripartite alliance.

Cosatu’s leaders became the leaders of the ANC, and were appointed by ANC leaders, including the legendary Nelson Mandela, to powerful positions in the government.

That trend has continued until today. The government led by Jacob Zuma has a high number of ex-trade union leaders in cabinet positions.

These appointments are themselves an acknowledgement of the important role that the trade union federation plays in the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance.

The high-profile role of ex-trade union leaders in the ANC is also confirmation that the party continues to take Cosatu seriously, because it depends on the support of millions of workers in elections.

Cosatu has also sought to use its strength to try to influence, with limited success, the policies of the ANC.

There is a school of thought that the problems faced by Vavi and the divisions they have brought about were the products of a political intervention by the ANC to deal with Vavi, who through his actions and public speeches had become a major irritation to the ANC.

In speaking truth to power, speaking out against fraud and corruption, and leading Cosatu in opposing the government’s introduction of e-tolls in Gauteng, Vavi earned the support of ordinary South Africans, but incurred the wrath of his own comrades.

The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back must have been his criticism, justified as it was, of the millions spent on Nkandla, the president’s private residence.

The allegations of sexual impropriety became a dream vehicle for Vavi’s detractors to go for the political jugular. They went for him like a pack of dogs hungry for blood. And they got him and tore him apart, forgetting that they had been in the political trenches with him, building Cosatu and the political Left as a force to be reckoned with, and playing a key role in producing leaders for the ANC and getting rid of some leaders, such as former president Thabo Mbeki.

So the intervention by the ANC, which saved Sdumo Dlamini and the unions that support him from some political blushes, was very important for Cosatu (read the ANC).

For the ANC, divisions in Cosatu cannot be tolerated in the run-up to the May 7 elections. The message is quite simple: an ANC victory is far more important than the politically smaller victories that could be scored by the likes of Vavi and his supporters and Dlamini and his backers.

And so the ANC intervened, and the results were immediate. Soon after the ANC bought time and got Cosatu leaders to smoke the peace pipe, Dlamini, in an address to National Union of Mineworkers shop stewards, called for a “ceasefire”.

At a separate forum on the same day, Vavi called on people to campaign for an ANC victory in the May 7 elections. The move seems to have upset union members who supported him throughout his suspension.

The big challenge for the ANC and Cosatu is whether the “ceasefire” will stand the test of time and survive beyond the May 7 elections.

This is not the only challenge faced by the leadership of the trade union federation. Cosatu unions have been decimated by a new kid on the block: the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). The number of unions that Amcu and Joel Mathunjwa have formed, in different sectors, point to a federation, a rival to Cosatu, that could be formed.

And given the current rapprochement between Amcu and parties opposed to the ANC, such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, the United Democratic Movement and Cope, the ANC has good reason to be worried about what could potentially be a major political threat.

This is why the ANC has needed the brains of Cyril Ramaphosa and the wisdom of its deputy secretary-general, Jessie Duarte, to pull Cosatu away from the brink, and in doing so save the ANC from being weakened substantially. Priceless political nimble-footedness.

* Jovial Rantao is the editor of the Sunday Independent.

Sunday Independent