Cosatu standoff revives battle of 30 years ago
Date Released: Wed, 4 December 2013 13:00 +0200
EITHER trade union history is about to repeat itself or the African National Congress (ANC) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) are headed for serious trouble. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini both know that tension between the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and Cosatu’s executive committee is reviving a 30-year-old battle in the union movement. But, while Dlamini expects and hopes that history will repeat itself, leaving his group in control, Mantashe fears the result may be different this time: if it is, Cosatu will face a damaging split that will also hurt the ANC.
The battle was between “workerists” and “populists” in the early 1980s. Neither label was chosen by the factions — they were usually hung on by their opponents.
“Workerists” wanted a union movement independent of the ANC and its ally, the United Democratic Front (UDF). They feared that a nationalist political movement would use workers and unions for its own ends — if the labour movement became its ally, unions would become a “conveyer belt” for the ANC, doing what it wanted rather than what workers wanted. “Populists” replied that the biggest problem facing workers was white minority rule — only the ANC and its allies could defeat it and so their “workerist” opponents were playing into apartheid’s hands by weakening the fight against it.
By the time Cosatu was formed in 1985, the “populists” seemed to have won — Cosatu worked with the UDF and became an ANC ally. Black workers saw the fight against legalised racism as a priority and the ANC as leader of that battle. But union independence did not disappear — Cosatu did not become an ANC lapdog and was often its most effective opposition. Nor did “workerists” vanish, although they were forced to become more realistic about workers’ loyalty to the ANC.
The union in which they were most vocal was Numsa — through the past 20 years, it was often just about the only union whose members debated leaving the ANC alliance and forming a workers’ party. The fact that this option was discussed at all set Numsa off as the most “workerist” Cosatu union.
This history has become current again as Numsa prepares for a special congress at which it will decide, among other issues, on its attitude to Cosatu. Conference documents again propose leaving the federation and charting a new political course. While this is nothing new, the tensions in Cosatu may now ensure a more sympathetic hearing. For his part, Dlamini has embarked on a campaign against “workerism”, joined by the South African Communist Party (SACP).
Like many of the “populists” in the 1980s, Dlamini seems intent on misrepresenting the other view, claiming his opponents want to keep unions out of politics. This would be absurd — all union movements engage in politics because this is the only way they can speak for their members. The “workerists” do not want to avoid politics, they want a different sort of politics that gives priority to worker interests. Numsa’s “workerists” are highly political and are to the left of the ANC and the SACP, which they accuse of not taking poverty and inequality seriously.
Dlamini and the SACP believe to win the argument, they just need to play on union members’ historical political loyalties — label their opponents enemies of the “liberation movement”, and Numsa members will vote to stay in Cosatu, even if that means allowing the Dlamini group to call the shots.
Mantashe is not so sure. A former unionist himself, he seems concerned that worker dissatisfaction with union leadership may have grown enough to give the current crop of “workerists” a real chance of taking Numsa out of Cosatu, where it may challenge the ANC from the left. This is why he warned last week it was not worth removing Numsa’s ally, Zwelinzima Vavi, if doing this split Cosatu.
In the short term, Dlamini and the SACP may win the argument — worker loyalties to the ANC and Cosatu may be strong enough to keep Numsa in, weakening those who want a union movement that puts the interests of workers ahead of those of the ruling party.
But such victory will be limited and partial. Workers in many Cosatu unions believe their leaders are not looking after their interests — one reason being that they care more about their relationship with government politicians than with their members. Worker and union loyalty to the ANC is no longer a foregone conclusion. So, if Dlamini and the SACP try to drive the other view out of Cosatu, they may eventually pay a much higher price than if they compromise with those wanting a more independent movement.
Even in the heated days of the anti-apartheid “struggle”, unions did not become an obedient vehicle of the ANC. They are unlikely to become one now. Unless Cosatu’s executive heeds Mantashe’s warning, they and the ANC may be unable to afford the cost of “winning”.
By Prof Steven Friedman
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
Source: Business Day