Requiem for Cosatu

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On Friday the National Union of Metalworkers of SA is expected to provide a full answer to a request by Cosatu for reasons why it should not be “suspended or expelled” from the federation. As we’ve suggested before, this is the latest act in a rather long and overly extended ballet, where everyone knows the final outcome, but is going to extend the misery nonetheless. Cosatu will split. The misery continues. But it’s only now that the full impact of this on workers is really beginning to be felt.

On Tuesday, while most of the world was watching someone’s neighbour being bullied on live-feed, there was a small gathering of what’s left of the Cosatu leadership at Cosatu House. In attendance were those reporters who could be spared from a certain square in Pretoria. As has been the case for virtually the last year, the reason for the press conference was not an update on a Cosatu campaign, or an announcement of what the country’s most important labour federation was going to do for workers, but rather another occasion for some leaders of Cosatu to shout at another leader of Cosatu.

Those currently in charge felt they had been silent for too long, and as a result Zwelinzima Vavi, suspended in August, had been able to win the media war. They accused him of attacking them in public, of lying in his interviews to the media, and essentially not playing fair. From a group of people who claim that four months is not enough time to consider a request for a Special Congress to decide Vavi’s fate, that’s just a little bit rich. If you remember, nine unions have asked for that conference; it’s technically up to Cosatu President S’dumo Dlamini to decide, and he is still deciding.

Occasionally in a press conference, often one that is not televised in all its courtroom glory, there is a moment when a journalist speaks truth to power. When the real situation, without all the usual trappings of political language, is laid bare on the table in front of everyone. Sometimes it’s a question from a younger reporter, who somehow cut through the crap of more “sophisticated” colleagues. But the most telling moments are when an older, more experienced reporter lets his or her own guard down slightly, and puts a question quite simply.

On Wednesday, it was Jan de Lange from Sake24. He’s what you would call a veteran of the political and legal beat; he knows his way around business, the economy and politics. Which makes him fairly rare. De Lange’s question to the assembled National Office Bearers was a simple one. “Workers in this country”, he said, “are about to suffer their biggest reverse in twenty years. The unity that they worked so hard for, and it was a hard fight, is about to be destroyed.” The room went quiet. It was obvious by this point that no one in the room, even those reporters who are routinely accused of being propagandists against the Alliance, took any joy from what was happening. De Lange continued, “What way, what possible way, is there to prevent this, without holding a special conference?”

In my view, even Cosatu’s leaders, who quite rightly were on the defensive up until that point, felt this was an honest moment. Something all in the room experienced as South Africans, rather than as the usual oppositionist forces we pretend to be.

There was a moment before proper answers came. Cosatu Deputy President Zingisa Losi said that “[w]e have a right to respond” to what NUMSA and Vavi had been saying.

But acting general secretary Bheki Ntshalishali was perhaps the most honest. What chance, he asked, would there be of any congress actually putting off this split anyway? His point was that if a group of people fail to make progress in any mediated discussion, “[i]f they don’t find one another in the CEC, in the Central Committee, in a facilitated process, do you think they will find one another in a special congress? No. They have to talk and find one another in terms of this particular issue.”

Which sounds as close as ‘dammit’ is to swearing to saying that ‘yes, we know, the whole thing is about to explode, and there’s nothing we can do about it’.

Cosatu is older than millions of first-time voters. It was formed in 1985. Since then, nothing has come closer to the claim of being the ‘legitimate’ voice of workers. It was the only organisation in the country that had more than a million and a half members (the ANC has just over a million or so). It was the only organisation in the country that could keep thousands of people in the streets for days at a time. It was the only organisation that could claim to represent people in activities as diverse as car-making, mining, farming, catering, banking, nursing, street-sweeping, and football.

If capital is what gives capitalists power in a capitalist system, the only response to it in our current financial system is to give workers power through unity, through unions, through working together, through making sure that an “injury to one is an injury to all”.

This has all gone now. The struggles for unity, the struggles of so many workers are now in vain.

It won’t be forever. Something eventually will take its place. Something different. Something new, perhaps a group of somethings. But the world as we know it, as we knew it, is now over. And for many millions of people, it’s going to leave them with less power, less recourse, a worse negotiating position.

In the long run we may find that this somehow leads to more jobs being created (particularly as it is now easier to implement measures like the youth wage subsidy), and more people being better off as a result. But it would be wrong to let Cosatu’s passing go without a moment of respect. For what it did for all of us. And particularly for its members, who must feel much worse off than they were before. 

By Stephen Grootes

Source: Daily Maverick

Photo: South African state workers seeking higher wages take part in a strike in Johannesburg August 26, 2010. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

Stephen Grootes studied at  Rhodes university