May Day! May Day!
No account of labour movement polit i cs can escape the sharp spotlight of scrutiny from the very society it functions in, nor can it be shielded f rom commentary on it s business. To attempt to do so would be dishonest. An inevitable by-product of significant events in politics/life is that for months and even years to come they will be the topic of conversation in the country. In a move that can be compared to the politics of ancient Rome, it only took a few years to undo Cosatu. Even more poetic is the fact that the final blow was delivered in March when the federation expelled its general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
In the aftermath after the battle for the soul of Cosatu, three things have become clear: one, that Vavi overestimated his underrated kingmaker role; two, Sdumo Dlamini is the best chess player and strategist since Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; and three, Cosatu, albeit shaken, still stands, but is it in name only? Time will tell.
But who is the architect of this settlement (Cosatu)? A settlement that has so far held in check, for now, the disaffected workers, and for the moment has carved peace from the chaos. It has been said that to obtain power and swing things back in his favour, Octavian needed to defeat the Republic;
to sustain his power, he feigned its resuscitation.
The f irst real test of the federation post-Vavi era will be the coming May Day activities. The past four years have shown us how a change in values and a differing in ideology can inf luence and affect union or federation activity. The Marxist and Michelsian critique of trade union officials is that, somewhere along the road of a journey from member to activist to paid official, principles fade. As repeatedly shown by history, the mandate of the workers is almost always replaced by the unthinking pursuit of self.
Will this May Day be any different? I do believe that it will be. How? May Day presents the perfect time for the launch of the Numsa-Vavi led “don’t mourn, organise” campaign. The need to attract the same group of workers’ attention will be the first test of each camp’s ability to win supporters.
On the one hand, you have Numsa and Vavi versus Cosatu. On the other, you have Amcu tabling its gold-sector wage demands at the end of April/early May. The tone of the latter at a recent media briefing suggests a scattering of crumbs from the negotiating table will no longer do. News on the ground is that a wage demand exceeding R12 500 will be the opening line.
For its part, Cosatu will seek to address the murmur among its members, to squash any chance of workers’ rebellion and at the same time retain the throne, further elevating its own position by placing unrelenting emphasis on its independence and relevance.
The theatre of the labour politics is set, come May Day who will get a standing ovation from the workers – Amcu, Cosatu or Numsa (with Vavi)? Who is punch-drunk with ambition? Who has lost sight of political realities? Whose focus never wavered? Only time and history will tell. Mamokgethi Molopyane is the chief research analyst: mining and labour at Creative Voodoo Consulting.