A tame Cosatu would be of little use to the ANC
Date Released: Wed, 21 August 2013 08:59 +0200
THE African National Congress (ANC) is far better off with a Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) which gives it a hard time than one which doesn’t.
Our national debate is often obsessed with personalities and is currently preoccupied with Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi. This obscures the crucial issue that placed him in the spotlight — Cosatu’s relationship to the ANC.
We would probably not have heard of Vavi’s workplace affair with a colleague if Cosatu were not in the midst of a struggle for its future prompted by unionists who want to move it closer to the ANC leadership and who believe that Vavi wants it to be far too independent of its ally.
His affair has given them ammunition, but it did not create their attempt to drive out of Cosatu him and others who criticise ANC leaders: the campaign began before last year’s ANC conference.
Evidence of what is at stake may be found in a crude document released by Vavi’s lawyers, which, they say, was circulated within Cosatu in an attempt to discredit him. Its authenticity has not been confirmed but it seems consistent with messages his Cosatu opponents have been feeding to the media. It portrays him and just about everyone who is seen as independent of the ANC — from former national director of prosecutions Vusi Pikoli to its left-wing critics — as co-conspirators in a plot organised by American pro-democracy organisations. It seems to show that a desire to smear critics of political power-holders is at the core of the conflict.
The battle between unionists who want to remain independent and those who don’t will continue, whatever happens to Vavi. If he is removed, this will be seen within Cosatu as an attempt to close down independence. It will prompt a split or an escalation of the internal war. If he stays, but his opponents continue the effort to close down Cosatu’s independence, the battle will continue.
Much is at stake. Cosatu has been a pressure on the government to account to voters. On AIDS, Zimbabwe, corruption or attempts to curb dissent within the ruling alliance, it has been a consistent voice for democracy. It has done this not because it is committed to an abstract principle but because, if it is to serve its members, it must put their concerns ahead of its loyalty to the ANC. If those who want Vavi out have their way, Cosatu may become more a source of support to governing politicians than to its members.
Given this, it is easy to see the conflict in Cosatu as a sign that the ANC is about to tighten its grip on society by snuffing out trade union independence. But the real loser if Cosatu does become an ANC rubber stamp is likely to be the ANC.
A key feature of the campaign against Vavi is that its architects know that he is popular among Cosatu members precisely because of his independence. Last year, they hoped to get rid of him by running a candidate against him at the Cosatu conference. It became clear that anyone who opposed him would lose, and so they have moved against him at a forum whose members are not directly elected: the central executive committee, which consists of senior union officials.
Because most Cosatu members want it to remain independent, attempts to make it serve the ANC leadership will be resisted by workers. Unions who support independence, chief among them the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, would survive if they split from Cosatu both because their ability to negotiate with employers does not depend on belonging to the federation and because they would retain their members’ support. Although they would prefer to stay, they can go if they must.
The ANC would lose far more from a compliant Cosatu than it would gain — imposing loyalty on it is likely to sap the federation’s strength. Cosatu is a key source of support at election time because it is organised and can get out the vote; a torn Cosatu would be far less able to provide the needed energy and organisation.
There is no prospect yet that Vavi’s supporters will support another party — both sides are still loyal to the ANC. But, whether or not Cosatu splits, a union federation at war with itself would not be able to do nearly as much for the ANC election effort.
Beyond this election, if those who favour independence are not made welcome in Cosatu and the ANC, a new party on the left would become possible.
A Cosatu that criticises the ANC may irritate the governing party’s leaders. But the price of a quieter life may be the loss of hundreds of thousands of votes. ANC leaders would feel better for a while, far worse after that. This explains one of the greatest puzzles of the Cosatu saga — that ANC leaders have discouraged attempts to push their critics out of the federation.
It explains too why the ANC’s rivals are probably hoping that the attempt to drive its critics out of Cosatu succeeds. It might, after all, be the beginning of the end of its electoral majority.
BY STEVEN FRIEDMAN
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
Article Source: Business Day