Why Cosatu’s best bet is to focus on core business

Karima Brown, Business Day, Johannesburg, 25 March 2008

With a week to go before the African National Congress (ANC) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) meet, in what is arguably the most important bilateral meeting since Jacob Zuma’s election as ANC president last year, I am reminded of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s prescient words to Zuma at a rally before the ANC’s Polokwane national conference.

“I believe that as a trade unionist I should remain independent, because sometimes I am going to have to shout even at you when the interest of workers are not served,” Vavi said. He was explaining his decision not to stand for the ANC’s national executive committee, amid pressure from the Zuma camp that he make himself available for a top job in the ruling party. By chastising Zuma on key policy issues since then, Cosatu has made good on this promise to “hold Zuma to account”.

While Cosatu’s drive to flood the ANC with its preferred candidates has some merit, given that the ANC remains contested in class terms and Cosatu needs critical mass to push a pro-labour agenda, simply electing individual trade union leaders into powerful ANC positions also hold dangers for Cosatu. This is especially true if one looks at postcolonial African states and the conveyer-belt relationship that has tended to develop between powerful liberation movements and trade unions after independence. The initial relationship in Zimbabwe between the ruling Zanu (PF) and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions shows the peril of labour movements being mere appendages of hegemonic ruling parties.

While no one can accuse Cosatu of being the ANC’s lapdog, it is equally true that many individual labour leaders quickly forget their own union roots once elected into senior ANC and government positions. Alec Erwin, Vusi Nhlapo, Jay Naidoo, Cyril Ramaphosa and Marcel Golding, to name a few, all prove the point that simply electing labour leaders, no matter how illustrious their past roles in the trade union movement, is no guarantee that ruling parties won’t adopt policies hostile towards the interests of organised labour. Has Cosatu forgotten so quickly how many of its cadres, sent to Parliament on a labour ticket, were implicated in Parliament’s Travelgate fraud scandal?

Which brings me to what seems to be at the heart of the current fallout between Cosatu and the ANC — how to accommodate Cosatu in the ANC’s national executive committee, and whether it is prudent for Cosatu to lobby actively for its own candidates in ANC provincial structures. This strategy, endorsed by Cosatu’s central executive committee, seems to rely almost exclusively on personalities rather than policies to advance the interest of labour, and it is already backfiring since Zuma’s (Cosatu-endorsed) ascendancy in the ANC . The federation’s spat with the new ANC leadership points, however, to more fundamental questions. These need to be addressed if the relationship between the ANC and its labour ally is to be one based on principle and a solid programme that will address the issues of the working class and the poor, which form the backbone of the aims of both organisations.

To start, Cosatu must accept that it enjoys an ambiguous relationship with state power through its tripartite alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party. This means Cosatu must own up to the reality that while it provides the organisational muscle to bring the ANC to electoral victory every five years, it enjoys much less influence in how the state exercises that power. Neither a Zuma presidency nor getting a couple of Cosatu leaders elected on to the ANC’s national executive committee is going to change that reality.

Cosatu’s best bet is to continue to build its mass base and extend its influence into sectors that remain poorly organised. Only a well-organised labour movement dedicated to a political programme will hold the ANC to account. Individuals come and go; organisation and mass power are the keys to keeping ruling parties on their toes.

  • Brown is political editor


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