Could Cosatu shift the political terrain?

After years of division and, in some cases, corruption, trade unions are taking a shared and principled position against graft in the ANC, obliging the president to act or risk being ousted.

The uncompromising attack on corruption in the governing party by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has the potential to shake up politics in South Africa. The federation recently served notice to President Cyril Ramaphosa that it will withdraw its support for Ramaphosa if he does not act decisively against corruption.

In a scorching statement, the federation declared, “President Ramaphosa will not win the fight against corruption if he continues to be confrontation-averse. He needs to start swinging a big axe if he wants workers to trust and believe in him.” They also announced a general strike against corruption for 7 October 2020.

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The resolute position taken on corruption aligns the federation with the unions organised in the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) and grassroots formations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo. The fact that organised workers across the two federations and the largest grassroots organisation in the country are uncompromisingly against corruption has important consequences. Chief among these is that it makes it impossible for the kleptocratic faction of the ANC to credibly make the ludicrous claim – as people like Jacob Zuma and Zandile Gumede do – that it somehow represents the poor.

But because Cosatu remains within the ANC, the position taken by the federation also places huge pressure on Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa would not have won the presidency of the ANC without the support of Cosatu, and he will not hold it if he loses Cosatu’s support. This could well tip the balance within the ruling alliance against the kleptocrats – which is significant because, as has been widely noted, although the kleptocrats have no support in society, they do have support within the ANC.

The changing landscape of unions

In recent years, the terrain of trade union politics has been dynamic. 

The strike on the platinum belt in 2012 was driven by workers organised in autonomous strike committees outside of and against the ANC-aligned National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). They had no union affiliation during the strike. But after the massacre at Marikana, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), a rapidly growing and politically independent union, largely displaced NUM from across the platinum belt, and at many other mines too.

In late 2014, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) was expelled from Cosatu in response to an uncompromising critique of Zuma’s government, a critique that escalated after the Marikana massacre. Numsa was, and still is, the largest trade union in the country. The rise of Amcu and the expulsion of Numsa dramatically weakened the ANC’s hold on the industrial unions. These developments also marked an important stage in the fracturing of the ANC’s hegemony during the Zuma period.

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In 2017, the formation of Saftu, with 21 affiliates, split the organised working class into two federations, with Amcu remaining independent. Cosatu, the larger federation, primarily represents government workers such as teachers, police officers, prison warders and so on. Saftu primarily represents industrial workers, but does include workers from other sectors such as the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union, which represents farm workers.

These seismic shifts came out of a crisis that had been gestating for years.

A fluctuating history

There have been powerful black trade unions in South Africa since the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) was formed by dockworkers in Cape Town in 1919 and rapidly spread across the country, and then much of southern Africa. The ICU turned into a social movement, with rural and urban members. By 1927, it had a membership of 100 000. The ICU collapsed in the 1930s as a result of rapid growth, repression and, in the end, a failure to deal with corrupt leaders.

The South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) was formed in Johannesburg in 1955. It was a non-racial trade union coordinating body, and closely aligned with the ANC. But in 1960, following the banning of the major anti-apartheid political organisations after the Sharpeville massacre, Sactu lost an effective presence in South Africa.

The trade union movement revived after the Durban strikes of 1973, which were part of a wider Durban moment. The Durban moment included the emergence of the Black Consciousness movement, and figures such as Steve Biko and Rubin Phillip, who went on to become an Anglican bishop, and the engagement of radical academic Rick Turner, and many of his students, with the emerging trade union movement.

The unions that emerged after the Durban moment were brought together in the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) in Hammanskraal in 1979. Fosatu was committed to workers’ control in unions and on the shop floor, to the empowerment and education of shop stewards, and to independence from the ANC in exile. For Fosatu, it was important to have an organisation and voice for workers that was not subsumed by the elite-dominated ANC.

Fosatu, like the ICU before it, also undertook impressive cultural work. This included choirs, theatre productions and the powerful contribution of worker poet Alfred Temba Qabula. 

Qabula was from Flagstaff and lived through the Pondo revolt and the massacre on Ingquza hill in 1960. In 1974, he took a job at Dunlop in Durban and joined the Fosatu-affiliated Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu) in 1983. The following year, he began to perform his famous praise poem, Izibongo zika Fosatu

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Around the world, industrial trade unions have often been masculinist spaces, and this is true in South Africa as well. But there were always important women leaders. Emma Mashinini founded the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union in Johannesburg in 1975. Jabu Ndlovu, who was murdered by Inkatha in 1989, was a powerful Mawu and then Numsa shop steward in Pietermaritzburg.

But Fosatu was not able to bring all the unions under its umbrella. When the radical doctor and trade unionist Neil Aggett, an organiser for the Food and Allied Workers’ Union was murdered in detention in 1982, unions across the country struck. This showed that unity was possible and, in 1985, Cosatu was formed in Durban under the leadership of Jay Naidoo. Fosatu agreed to dissolve itself into Cosatu in the interests of unity.

Cosatu rapidly became an extraordinarily powerful force and made a significant contribution to the collapse of the apartheid regime. But Cosatu was explicitly ANC aligned, and so the union movement was rapidly captured and instrumentalised by the ANC after it was unbanned in 1990. A number of trade unionists, including Ramaphosa, would also be swiftly co-opted by capital.

In the years to come, much of the political power and moral authority of the union movement that had been built up since the Durban strikes would be squandered. But the decline of the political power and moral authority of the unions was not consistent or uniform. From the late 1990s, Cosatu’s consistent solidarity with the Treatment Action Campaign was a critical factor in the movement’s triumph over both the multinational drugs companies and Thabo Mbeki’s devastating HIV-Aids denialism. In 2008, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, working with Bishop Phillip, refused to offload weapons bound for the dictatorship in Zimbabwe from a ship docked in Durban. Unions in Walvis Bay and Luanda followed suit in an exemplary act of solidarity with the Zimbabwean people.

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But some unions, like NUM, would lose all credibility with the bulk of their constituency. Others, like the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu), would collapse into wholesale corruption. The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) would become notorious for corruption and thuggery, to the point where it would often be referred to as a “gangster union”.

The wholesale collapse of the moral authority of the trade union movement began in 2006 when then Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi gave vociferous support to Zuma during his rape trial and was a leading participant in the shameful scenes that unfolded outside the court in Pietermaritzburg. The situation was compounded when Zuma was tried for corruption in 2008, and Vavi followed Malema in declaring that he was “willing to kill for Zuma”.

During Zuma’s period in office, then Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini gave craven and obsequious support to the corrupt leader, even as scandals multiplied, striking miners were gunned down by the state and grassroots activists assassinated. This was the lowest point in the public standing of the trade union movement since its rebirth in 1973.

The possibility of solidarity

Today, there are still problems in the union movement. These include the collapse of the credibility of Sadtu and Samwu, both of which continue to be Cosatu affiliates. And Saftu is not without its problems. Vavi, its secretary general, has been a compromised figure since Zuma’s rape trial, and this has worsened with allegations of sexual harassment, which include allegations of the sexual exploitation of vulnerable workers within trade union structures.

Industrial unions have been organising on very difficult terrain for many years as a result of the rapid deindustrialisation of the South African economy and consequent retrenchments. This crisis will deepen as the economy continues to shrink. Unions that constantly have to respond to retrenchments operate in a state of permanent emergency, and, as a result, often lack the time, resources and energy to undertake more strategic work.

Unions representing government workers have had a much easier time in the past 25 years. But, as the ANC turns to austerity in the wake of years of looting and a shrinking tax base, these unions will increasingly find themselves in a similar crisis to the industrial unions. If the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is able to advance its power in South Africa this situation will rapidly worsen.

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But there are also good reasons to be encouraged. Cosatu and Saftu always shared similar positions on international issues and a critique of imperialism. They have taken similar positions on the recent IMF loan, and there is something of an emerging consensus on key economic questions. Both federations are now taking principled and very similar positions on the corruption question. At the same time, Numsa, by far the largest union in Saftu, is making serious attempts to forge alliances with grassroots groups, including Abahlali baseMjondolo. 

All this means that there are increasing possibilities for solidarity and cooperation between government workers and industrial workers, and between workers and the impoverished, as we confront an increasingly difficult economic situation.

Despite its limits and contradictions, the trade union movement will continue to be an important and progressive actor in our politics.

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