Strike a rock
Can Zingiswa Losi save Cosatu?
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.