Cosatu’s leadership has indicted itself
The Cosatu special national congress scheduled for tomorrow until Tuesday could be a historic turning point in the history of our labour federation.
For the first time since divisions erupted before, during and after Cosatu’s national congress in September 2012, the rank and file membership will have a chance to make its voice heard. Only it has the power to pull Cosatu back from the brink of a catastrophic implosion and split.
The crisis in the federation lies not in personal differences, but in contradictory class relationships and the failure of government and the ANC-led tripartite alliance to resolve the crisis of the triple oppression of the working class based on class, race and gender, and by allowing capitalists in the liberation movement to dominate economic policy.
The crisis reflects a struggle between the defenders of a neoliberal South African capitalism, justified by a particular interpretation of the national democratic revolution, and those who are determined to pursue a radical national democratic revolution as part of a struggle for socialism.
The failure to address unemployment, poverty and inequality in the post-1994 period threatens to destroy the liberation movement as a whole, and Cosatu in particular.
The crisis in the federation and the alliance was starkly exposed in the statement issued after the alliance summit last week.
It was completely silent about basic bread-and-butter issues facing the working class, saying not a word about the crisis of mass unemployment, poverty and inequality; nothing about the outsourcing and casualisation of labour, the continuing use of labour brokers, and our dysfunctional public education and health services.
It was silent about burying the apartheid wage structure and progress made on the national minimum wage. It said nothing about comprehensive social security or national health insurance; there was nothing about macroeconomic policies, including commitments by alliance partners to radical economic transformation. It confined itself to vague commitments to “a democratic and prosperous South Africa” and “working together to put in place a better life for all”.
Either the summit did not discuss these critical issues, or they were not considered important enough to mention. It is a crushing indictment of the Cosatu leadership that they signed a statement that ignored such matters, and confirms that they are no longer an independent, militant workers’ voice, but have become uncritical supporters of government policies.
The statement also said nothing about the lack of any mass mobilisation by the alliance for many years, and showed no attempt by leaders to take responsibility for the current disunity.
It amounted to an endorsement of the Cosatu leadership that brought about this disunity.
These leaders have been unable to implement many of the mandates of the 2012 congress and the 2013 collective bargaining conference. They have made no progress in getting closer to the 4 million membership figure in the Cosatu 2015 plan to recruit and service the most vulnerable workers; there have been no noticeable improvements in the servicing of workers or implementing the education plan designed to empower organisers and shop stewards to improve service to workers.
Yet the leadership has found time to divide the federation by expelling its largest affiliate, the 365 000strong metalworkers’ union Numsa, as well as former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Interventions to create unity by the ANC task team, Cosatu’s former leaders and a facilitating team appointed by the central executive committee came to nothing as the faction pursued its divisive agenda with the clear support of the SA Communist Party leadership – contrary to its leadership’s claims to the contrary.
The leadership faction now says Numsa, Vavi and hundreds of purged activists in some affiliates will not be at the special congress, insisting they can only appeal to the next “ordinary congress” – for which a date has not been finalised. This is yet another blatant disregard of Cosatu’s constitution.
The nine or more unions who are opposed to these purges have jointly decided they will attend the special congress and use it as a platform to agitate for genuine unity of the federation based on independence, a socialist orientation and militancy. Genuine unity and cohesion is impossible, however, without the reinstatement of Numsa, Vavi and the scores of purged union activists and members.
They will propose that the appeals of both Vavi and Numsa should be heard at the special congress. Should the national office bearers of Cosatu continue to refuse to include these items on the agenda, the nine or more unions will move from the floor amendments to the agenda. It is standard practice that one of the first items of any agenda of any federation meeting must be the adoption of the agenda – with room to move amendments. The special congress must be no exception.
The nine or more unions will also engage in the substance of debates in the proposed commissions that will sit in the congress on the implementation of Cosatu congress resolutions, and opening a pathway to unity and cohesion.
Given the opportunity, shop stewards and workplace activists understand the underlying crisis in Cosatu is an extension of the class struggle. Workers, regardless of the union they belong to, will want to be part of the solution, not the problem, and ensure that we have a trade union movement that is militant, profoundly democratic and accountable, and unambiguously in favour of a socialist solution to the problems we face. We must enhance what used to be the finest and most envied aspect of our movement in the past: a clear commitment to workers’ control. We must break the paralysis that is today being exploited by those who want to stop the forward march of labour.
Chirwa is the president of Numsa
Zwelinzima Vavi and Sdumo Dlamini