Sunday Times

Strike a rock

Can Zingiswa Losi save Cosatu?

- PALESA LEBITSE ✼ Lebitse is a colum­nist Politics · Jacob Zuma · Congress of South African Trade Unions · Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma · Zwelinzima Vavi

SA is hav­ing an un­prece­dented mo­ment. Cosatu has elected its first fe­male pres­i­dent, demon­strat­ing that the an­dro­cen­tric norms that dom­i­nate our so­ci­ety can in fact be dis­man­tled. Zingiswa Losi’s ap­point­ment to head the labour fed­er­a­tion demon­strates that women are able to do well in pol­i­tics with­out the disin­gen­u­ous fe­male-em­pow­er­ment dogma ex­ploited dur­ing Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s failed pres­i­den­tial bid.

But per­haps most in­ter­est­ing is that, though Losi’s ap­point­ment has done much to al­lay gen­der dis­par­ity con­cerns in the trade union fed­er­a­tion, the po­si­tion of gen­eral sec­re­tary con­tin­ues to be oc­cu­pied ex­clu­sively by men.

The most pow­er­ful po­si­tion in a trade union fed­er­a­tion is that of gen­eral sec­re­tary, not pres­i­dent. The lat­ter is a de facto fig­ure­head with far fewer re­spon­si­bil­i­ties than the for­mer, an of­fi­cial of the fed­er­a­tion tasked with re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that in­clude run­ning the fed­er­a­tion and man­ag­ing its fi­nances.

Bheki Nt­shal­intshali was re-elected un­op­posed as the fed­er­a­tion’s gen­eral sec­re­tary. At best, Losi be­comes the face of Cosatu and the fig­ure­head who will be held to ac­count should the trend of af­fil­i­ate dis­dain, de­clin­ing mem­ber­ship and fi­nan­cial woes con­tinue.

Fur­ther­more, though Losi’s ap­point­ment comes as a pleas­ant de­vel­op­ment, her as­cend­ing to the top has not been with­out turbulence. She is a prod­uct of met­al­work­ers union Numsa, and her re­cent feat comes af­ter she aban­doned her orig­i­nal con­stituency, which was ex­pelled from Cosatu.

She was fiery in her at­tack on Numsa when the union was ex­pelled in 2014, say­ing that the ex­pul­sion was cor­rect and that Cosatu wanted unity by all means but not at any cost. It was as though Numsa had never been her con­stituency. She said Cosatu didn’t be­long to Numsa and Zwelinz­ima Vavi, and pointed out that the fed­er­a­tion has 18 af­fil­i­ates.

Losi, as pres­i­dent, is sup­posed to be on a mis­sion to re­build Cosatu. How­ever, she in­her­its a trade fed­er­a­tion at its low­est ebb. Cosatu’s woes are char­ac­terised by a vi­cious de­cline in mem­bers, a fi­nan­cial deficit that has mul­ti­plied since 2015, and af­fil­i­ate debt that has tripled over a three-year pe­riod.

These three trends de­scribe a ghastly tra­jec­tory. In ad­di­tion to this, Cosatu’s or­gan­i­sa­tional re­port re­veals that the once-mighty fed­er­a­tion faces fur­ther chal­lenges, in­clud­ing a lack of au­thor­ity to in­ter­vene in the con­flicts be­set­ting dys­func­tional af­fil­i­ates and an alarm­ing de­cline in mem­ber­ship that is likely to change the char­ac­ter of Cosatu.

When a labour fed­er­a­tion bleeds 600,000 mem­bers in six years (mem­ber­ship stands at 1.6-mil­lion, from 1.9-mil­lion in 2015 and 2.2-mil­lion in 2012), can it still be re­garded as the dom­i­nant force in SA’s labour move­ment?

It goes with­out say­ing that fi­nan­cial crises usu­ally fol­low when a body’s mem­ber­ship di­min­ishes con­sis­tently, but it is as­ton­ish­ing that Cosatu’s deficit has tripled over a three-year pe­riod.

By March 2015, var­i­ous re­ports said that Cosatu’s fi­nan­cial com­mit­tee pre­dicted a stag­ger­ing R4m deficit for 2015 — only to have it re­vealed dur­ing the fed­er­a­tion’s 13th na­tional congress that Cosatu was run­ning a deficit of more than R16m at the end of De­cem­ber last year.

Even more ghastly is that the fed­er­a­tion’s deficit is not the only fea­ture that has tripled since 2015. Af­fil­i­ates owe Cosatu more than R45m in mem­ber­ship fees — a jump from the R15m re­ported in 2015.

In­ter­est­ingly, the fed­er­a­tion’s fi­nan­cial trou­bles date back to 2015, even be­fore its for­mer boss, Vavi, was shown the door. Vavi warned that Cosatu’s dire fi­nan­cial state “was a recipe for a com­plete loss of in­de­pen­dence for the fed­er­a­tion”.

He fur­ther­more crit­i­cised Numsa’s ex­pul­sion from the fed­er­a­tion and sug­gested that it was fool­ish to kick out a union with more than 350,000 mem­bers with­out con­sid­er­ing the fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tions for Cosatu.

In essence, all labour fed­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing Cosatu, will have to make more of an ef­fort to over­come en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges such as the ef­fects of glob­al­i­sa­tion (es­ca­lated im­mi­gra­tion, au­toma­tion, a di­verse work­force, in­equal­i­ties, eco­nomic crisis) and SA’s triple chal­lenges of un­em­ploy­ment, in­equal­ity and poverty, as well as the de­cline in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor and other in­dus­tries.

Cosatu finds it­self plung­ing as a fed­er­a­tion due to Numsa and Vavi’s ex­its, which led to the for­ma­tion of a new fed­er­a­tion that is said to rep­re­sent 700,000 mem­bers.

With Losi hav­ing said the fed­er­a­tion does not re­gret ex­pelling Numsa, it re­mains to be seen if she is the kind of leader who can turn the sit­u­a­tion around.

Given her history, re­new­ing Cosatu may prove quite tricky.

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