Cosatu is not dying, but better leadership is needed

| Terry Bell

The American writer and humourist Mark Twain once wrote, following an erroneous report of his death, that it was an exaggeration. The same can be said about Cosatu.

However, reports of the imminent death of the labour federation persist. And little wonder given the manner in which the Cosatu leadership and its allies continue to approach the situation the federation finds itself in. Rather than address reality, they continue to wallow in myth, tinged with apparent paranoia that owes more to the Cold War past than to the present.

Take the speech by Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini to last week’s national congress, for example. He laid the blame for the recent — and highly damaging — turmoil and infighting in Cosatu on an apparent American sponsored plot. According to Dlamini, “many of our union leaders have been taken to the USA to undertake various trainings”. These union leaders, Dlamini maintained, were “agents of the Americans”.

While he conceded that there had been a crisis within Cosatu, he told the assembled delegates that “without any ambiguity” it had been “planned and driven from outside”. In other words the leadership of the federation was completely without blame or responsibility; they had merely been victims of a dastardly international plot.

Had any evidence been advanced to support such wild claims it would have created a major international incident. But, of course, there was no evidence, merely rhetoric that added further confusion to an already confused situation.

And the address to the congress by President Jacob Zuma did nothing to improve matters. Rambling and ideologically incoherent, Zuma indulged in some simplistic capitalist bashing on issues such as the price of bread and petrol. But while he maintained that the enemy was the capitalist class, he also stressed that the ANC was a “multi-class organisation” including, obviously, capitalists.

Perhaps, given this sort of analysis, it should have been no surprise, that there was a strong move among Cosatu affiliates to support billionaire businessman and deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa to succeed Zuma when the president’s term ends in 2019. One reason advanced was that because Ramaphosa already had so much money, he was unlikely to be corrupt.

That Ramaphosa was a director of Lonmin at the time of the Marikana massacre and sent emails in support of tough police action against the strikers does not appear to have counted against him. This is, however, a side issue, because what it boils down to is that Cosatu remains unconditionally allied to the ANC.

As Zuma explained, without any irony, it was a matter of a multi-class ANC battling to bring about a “national democratic revolution” while the workers fought to improve wages and conditions and the Communist Party (SACP) strove to overthrow the capitalist order to usher in “the dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Each element of the alliance should therefore unite behind the ANC — “unity is the key,” said Zuma — despite often diametrically opposed interests. At a bureaucratic level, political affiliation therefore becomes the priority and seems to be the underlying cause of Cosatu’s problems.

This point was perhaps inadvertently made by the newly confirmed general secretary of the federation, Bheki Ntshalintshali. In an interview, he blamed the crisis in the federation on a fallout between members of a self-syled “progressive leaders” group.

He named SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, public works minister Thulas Nxesi, ANC MP Fikile Majola and former Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinizima Vavi. What he failed to say was that all are, with the exception of Vavi, central committee members of the SACP.

Mantashe was also a former general secretary of the National Union of MIneworkers, Fikile general secretary of the public sector union, Nehawu and Nxesi the general secretary of the major teachers’ union, Sadtu. Not mentioned by Ntshalintshali were two other major players in this crisis, Irvin Jim, general secretary of metalworkers’ union, Numsa and his deputy, Karl Cloete.

But like Vavi, Jim and Cloete were also, until fairly recently, members of the SACP, with Cloete being a former provincial secretary of that party in the Western Cape. This falling out among members of a party known for insisting that all “toe the party line” clearly played a major role in bringing the crisis to a head..

The “line” is to continue giving full support to the ANC-led alliance headed by President Jacob Zuma. But Vavi, Jim and Cloete, backed by considerable rank and file support within the labour movement, rejected this.

There are, of course, other factors involved, including personal ambitions and the bureaucratic structure the unions have developed. But nothing has been adequately dealt with, and so Cosatu goes into its fourth decade, neither dead nor dying, but carrying all the damaging detritus of the past.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Labour

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