South Africa: COSATU & the ANC national conference

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has become an important part of the tripartite alliance and continues to influence and be influenced by internal African National Congress (ANC) politics. The 1973 strike in Durban was integral to the establishment of the union movement in South Africa. COSATU itself was established in 1985 as a result of an agreement that greater unity was required among the various labour unions and federations. At the time of its launch, COSATU represented fewer than half a million workers organised in 33 unions. Over time COSATU has grown into a large labour movement representing approximately two million workers. Following the unbanning of the liberation movements in 1990, the ANC, COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP) formed a strategic tripartite alliance, which lasts until this day. The alliance means that the three organisations do not contest elections separately, but all work towards supporting the ANC.

During former President Thabo Mbeki’s second term in office, relations among the alliance members deteriorated badly as a result of differing ideologies. Mbeki replaced the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), a pro-poor policy that was developed in consultation with COSATU and the SACP, with the more conservative Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macro-economic strategy. This triggered the breakdown in relations between Mbeki and the alliance partners, whom he accused of being ‘ultra-leftists’. COSATU and SACP, along with the ANC Youth League, rallied behind Jacob Zuma to replace Mbeki at the 2007 ANC national conference in Polokwane, but it did not take too long for this coalition to start to fracture. Many in COSATU felt betrayed by President Zuma following the first 2009 budget speech delivered by Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan. The unionists had clearly expected to have their support for President Zuma better rewarded with changes to economic policy, which were not forthcoming.

Since then, Zwelinzima Vavi, secretary-general of COSATU, has been very vocal on the problems within the ANC. This past weekend a number of newspapers highlighted parts of the political report that he is expected to give at COSATU’s upcoming conference starting on 17 September. Vavi argues that ‘struggles in the organisation [the ANC] are increasingly over control of the levels of accumulation. Those challenging these abuses find their lives are increasingly in danger’. Consequently, there is ‘growing social distance between the leadership and the rank and file’. Vavi’s critical view has made him the target of pro-Zuma supporters, including senior members of the SACP, who have started to campaign for the removal of Vavi as secretary-general, as reported in the Mail and Guardian newspaper (M&G).

ANC fractures are starting to be reflected in COSATU, with its president, Sdumo Dlamini, being seen as a supporter of President Zuma. Other pro-Zuma senior union leaders include those belonging to the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), whose general secretary Fikile Majola has been tipped as a possible replacement for Vavi. Senior leaders in the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) are also said to support President Zuma for a second term. On the other hand, Vavi apparently has strong support among the leadership of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU), along with many in the other unions mentioned above.

The divisions within COSATU, which are exacerbated by the pro- and anti-Zuma factions, are further aggravated by the factionalism within the organisation. It has become more apparent that the organisation is slow to respond to issues that affect the average worker. The union that is the hardest hit is NUM. The drop in employment opportunities due to reduced production within the mining industry, the increased mechanisation of the industry and the lack of international investment because of the nationalisation agenda being advocated by factions within the ANC, has caused COSATU members to doubt the organisation’s ability to represent their needs. These doubts have led to violent clashes between NUM and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). After a protest at the Kwezi shaft at Aquarius’ Kroondal mine turned violent, workers felt that NUM was unable to communicate their interests to the management of the mine. This resulted in a large number of members defecting to AMCU because it seemed more responsive. The movement of members to smaller unions is also a weakening factor within the organisation.  Read more…