Twenty years of class collaboration as part of the Tripartite Alliance has finally produced an irreversible split in the Cosatu trade union federation. On 30 March, Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) expelled general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, a vocal critic of the anti-working class policies of the ANC government for his 16 years as leader of the federation. Further, the CEC made NUMSA’s November expulsion permanent by admitting the amagundwane, the Liberated Metalworkers’ Union of South Africa (Limusa) led by NUMSA’s former president Cedric Gina.
The ground for Cosatu’s split has been prepared over the past twenty years. Izwi La Basebenzi, WASP’s newspaper, has consistently pointed out that the Alliance rested on class forces with diametrically opposed interests; that far from it being necessary for the unity of the working class as the SACP falsely argued, it guaranteed disunity. Izwi therefore called upon the Cosatu rank-and-file to reclaim the federation’s class and political independence by taking Cosatu out of the Alliance.
The contradiction of a trade union federation with a militant struggle history and socialist ideology remaining in alliance with the pro-capitalist ANC and the capitalist apologists in the South African Communist Party was always going to pose a threat to workers unity as the federation was torn apart by the irreconcilable pressures of political loyalty and subservience to the ANC and the interests of workers that built Cosatu with their sweat and blood.
Indeed, the break-up of Cosatu has been underway in slow motion for many years with a whole series of small splits from Cosatu affiliates. The Marikana massacre was the earthquake that finally shattered the foundations of the Alliance drawing a clear line between the forces that aligned themselves with the ANC government and the mining bosses, and the aspirations of the mineworkers’ independent strike committees for class and political independence. Marikana represented a change of quantity into quality. Since that watershed, the decisive break-up of Cosatu has been guaranteed with only the detail of how and when left unanswered. Those answers have now been given.
New federation posed
Since November’s expulsion of NUMSA, Vavi and the leaders of PAWUSA, Denosa, FAWU, SASAWU, CWU, SAFPU and SACCAWU have been boycotting Cosatu meetings in solidarity with NUMSA. The question of a new trade union federation is clearly posed and discussions are already underway. Vavi has said that a meeting of NUMSA’s Cosatu allies will be held over 5-6 May to discuss the way forward and prepare for a ‘workers summit’ in June. It has also been reported that NUMSA has had talks with the Nactu federation, AMCU and other independent unions.
Socialists fight for the maximum unity of the working class. However, at certain points in history, a split, such as that which is now entrenched in Cosatu, has the potential to be progressive if it holds out the possibility of increasing the fighting power of the working class. For the past two years Cosatu has been paralysed. Despite resolutions to campaign and struggle on issues including labour broking and e-tolls nothing has happened. We repeat Vavi’s call – “don’t mourn, organise!” Further, Vavi has said, “I will be found everywhere, marching with workers, mobilising them, reinforcing the recruitment of workers … negotiating, leading campaigns against labour brokers, e-tolls, exploitation, job losses…” There is no question that the fighting traditions of Cosatu have left with NUMSA and now Vavi. Struggle must be at the heart of the new federation.
WASP welcomes the proposed way forward. We have consistently called on NUMSA and its allies to convene such a meeting, especially in light of the pro-ANC Cosatu leadership’s open defiance of the constitution by refusing to convene a special congress. In November, we said “…a date should be set early in the new year for a conference to discuss the way forward for the trade union movement. This should be open, not just to NUMSA and its [Cosatu] allies, but members and structures of other Cosatu affiliates, affiliates of the Nactu trade union federation, independent unions and groups of unorganised workers struggling to found new unions.” It is crucial that any ‘workers summit’ builds a bridge to those workers still held hostage in the rump-Cosatu and makes efforts to win them over.
The burning question now is the political orientation and character of any new federation. Any new trade union centre must base itself on democratic and worker-controlled unions as was originally intended by the founders of Cosatu in 1985. The corrosive corruption of the past twenty years must be cleansed from the movement. A crucial lesson to learn from the demise of Cosatu is to recognise the price of class collaboration. Whilst Vavi has singled out corruption as the main cause of Cosatu’s demise, in reality, this is just a symptom, the inevitable consequence of class collaboration. The new federation must restore Cosatu’s original socialist ideals and base the struggles that lie ahead on these.
The disintegration of Cosatu will accelerate the divisions in the SACP and threaten further the ANC’s political authority with serious implications in next year’s local government elections for a party whose 62% majority masks the reality that only 34% of eligible voters supported it in 2014. Any new federation must not just reclaim the independence of the working class industrially but politically too. The purpose of the proposed workers summit must be both to launch a new federation, as well as a mass workers party on socialist programme. The launch of a mass workers party is absolutely imperative – support for such a party is widespread.
The pale shadow
What remains of Cosatu is a bunch of corrupt ‘leaders’ holding the remaining members as hostages. These ‘leaders’ see trade unions as vehicles for self-enrichment. Alignment with the ANC is the best way to realise their personal greed. What is left in Cosatu? NUMSA, the biggest union on the African continent has been replaced with Limusa, a mere ‘post-box’ with 1,600 members compared to NUMSA’s 340,000! The NUM, whose leaders’ hands are still dripping with the blood of their former members after their role in the Marikana massacre, will regain their ascendancy.
Those left behind in Cosatu are not united behind their leaders or their actions. A SAMWU worker who phoned in to a Radio 702 talk show explained that SAMWU was not united in support of the expulsion of Vavi and that he and his fellow workers had been awaiting the calling of a Special Congress to register their support for him. He will be representative of tens of thousands of workers. Further splits can be anticipated within Cosatu’s remaining unions.
Cosatu’s dependency on the ANC will increase. Vavi has revealed that the federation faces a R300,000 per month deficit after the loss of NUMSA’s monthly R11 million affiliation fee. What remains of Cosatu will be a treacherous fifth column in the labour movement.
The ANC leadership’s policy over years has been to try and turn Cosatu into a ‘toy telephone’ or ‘labour desk’. However, that does not mean that the ANC leadership will welcome Vavi’s expulsion any more than they welcomed NUMSA’s. They have intervened to try and preserve Cosatu, not out of concern for working class unity, but because they recognise that working class opposition could gather around an independent NUMSA. All of their mediation efforts were geared toward keeping NUMSA as a prisoner in the Alliance. Gwede Mantashe, ANC general secretary, has already made comments expressing unhappiness with the clumsy expulsion of Vavi. The ANC’s ‘strategy’ has turned to dust.
The way in which the split in Cosatu has unfolded can only accelerate the demise of the ANC’s remaining working class support. As union rivalry intensifies with the birth of a new federation, the bosses, encouraged by the services the ANC rendered them at Marikana, will expect more of the same, particularly in the light of the serious crisis in the economy. Under that pressure, the ANC will in turn pressure the remains of Cosatu to assist them ‘manage expectations’ within the working class.
The first, immediate test will be the public sector salary negotiations. There is no hiding place for the pro-ANC rump that controls Cosatu. The ANC, Cosatu’s political master masquerading as an ally is at the same time the employer. If Cosatu is seen as blatantly in the pockets of the ANC and the bosses, its final shred of credibility will be lost, and the haemorrhage of members to the new federation will see it bleed to death completely. On the other hand, if Cosatu attempts an opportunistic offensive, it will damage relations with the ANC who will see this as an act of disloyalty. Of no further use to it, Cosatu will have to be brushed aside and the ANC government will have to do its own dirty work in attacking the working class.
The ANC now faces a lose-lose situation. The split of Cosatu will compound the ANC’s losses in the 2016 local elections, now barely a year away. The idea of an independent working class party will be posed ever more starkly in the minds of workers. We anticipated in our new year statement that, “the realignment of the trade union movement will continue in 2015 and the battle for Cosatu will enter its final phase.” The expulsion of Vavi and admission of Limusa into Cosatu has driven the final nail into the coffin of the federation.
When Numsa embarked on its journey to the Special National Congress in December 2013, it was alone. It has now been joined by the seven Cosatu affiliates in the struggle for a new federation, by numerous political formations in preparation for the Movement for Socialism and by a number of community organisations, student and youth bodies and other formations in the United Front. Within the rank-and-file of all of these there is an overwhelming desire for their struggles to be united within and across the three theatres of struggle – service delivery protests, tertiary education institutions and the workplace – under a mass workers party. A new chapter in the struggle of the working class has opened. History beckons. Forward to a mass workers party on a socialist programme!