South Africa: The end of Cosatu?

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WASP (Workers and Socialist Party) Reporters, South Africa
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is convulsing in its death throes as the once mighty federation’s long drawn out death agony nears its conclusion. The pro-ANC wing in Cosatu’s leadership, at last week’s Special Central Executive Committee (SCEC) plumbed new depths in their long standing betrayal of the working class. The meeting, in effect, read Cosatu its last rites. The constitution of Cosatu has been torn up in the decision not to convene a special congress. The principle of workers’ control – a central tenet of Cosatu since its foundation – has been annihilated in the effective declaration that the leadership of Cosatu is no longer accountable to the membership or recallable by them. Cosatu is now officially run by a cabal whose priority is not advancing the interests of the working class but of serving the ANC and the capitalist class behind them. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) long expressed fear that Cosatu was in danger of being turned into a mere ‘labour desk’ for the African National Congress (ANC) ANC has been realised.

In reality, the SCEC meeting was nothing more than a factional meeting of the pro-ANC Cosatu leaders. The absence of the nine unions supporting Numsa’s call for a special congress shatters the claim that this meeting had any constitutional standing. Only eight of nineteen affiliates were represented at the meeting. The contortions that Cosatu president Dlamini and acting general secretary Ntshalintshali performed for the media to attempt to claim quoracy for the SCEC was a thinly veiled attempt to disguise the illegitimacy of their own leadership. A split is all but guaranteed now.

Central to the escalation of the factional war in Cosatu were the decisions taken by Numsa – Cosatu’s largest affiliate – at their own Special National Congress in December last year. Numsa’s SNC took a series of historic decisions, most importantly to withdraw their support for the ANC and the South African Communist Party. In recognising the significance of this, we described Numsa’s congress as “the most important trade union congress since the founding of Cosatu in 1985”. We explained that the stand of Numsa was an aftershock of the earthquake of the Marikana massacre and that Numsa’s decisions were themselves seismic events in their own right. More tremors would certainly follow and this week’s SCEC has confirmed this.

In a letter sent to Numsa immediately after the SCEC meeting, the pro-ANC faction has thrown down the gauntlet and given their answer to Numsa’s special congress decisions. They have helped to further clarify the class lines that divide the two factions. The letter says that “the CEC formed the preliminary view that NUMSA should be suspended or expelled from its affiliation of COSATU because NUMSA has in the recent past acted against the interests of the Federation, and implicitly threatens to continue to do so in the future”. The letter then itemises Numsa’s ‘crimes’ as, (1) breaking from the ANC, (2) planning a march to Cosatu’s next CEC meeting, (3) Numsa’s withholding of their affiliation fee to Cosatu, (4) breaking from the SA Communist Party, (5) the decision to expand Numsa’s scope of recruitment.

All pretences have thus been abandoned. The battle in Cosatu was never about Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, as we have consistently pointed out. The reality is that it is the ANC that “acted against the interests of the Federation” if by that we identify the interests of the working class. It is not Numsa that has a case to answer but the pro-ANC Cosatu leaders. Even so they have the audacity to demand that Numsa must explain why it is that Numsa should not be expelled!

So arrogant is the pro-ANC wing that they are not just showing the door to Numsa but threatening the other eight unions exercising their constitutional right in supporting the call for a special congress. They too will be written to asking them to “clarify” whether they share Numsa’s views on the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance. Having made an example of Numsa and how such views would be treated this equates to placing a gun to the head of the other unions.

The continuing campaign against suspended Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was also escalated at the SCEC. Further internal charges are to be brought against Vavi based on investigations of his day-to-day management of Cosatu by an external auditor. Whether or not there is a case for Vavi to answer, the move is entirely factionally motivated.

The new calculations of the ANC

The pro-ANC wing is pursuing a scorched earth policy. On the one-hand this suits their narrow self-interest by allowing them to maintain the perks of office as long as possible. But more fundamentally it reflects the new calculations of their ANC masters after the failure of ‘plan A’ of keeping the federation intact – at least formally – as part of the Tripartite Alliance. Early on in the dispute a task team of high profile ANC leaders was appointed to try and quell the rebellion within Cosatu. But the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa defiant stand and the support they won from nearly half of Cosatu’s affiliates for a special congress – which would see an attempt to remove the pro-ANC wing from office and reinstate Vavi – scuppered this scenario.

Then came the blow of Numsa’s SNC decision to sever ties with the ANC and SACP. This represented the conscious articulation by Numsa that what was driving the factional war were not the merits of the case against Vavi but the contradictions inherent in the participation of Cosatu in the Alliance with the pro-capitalist ANC. In other words, the real issues were finally put on the table.

Now the ANC is calculating that it is better for them to wreck Cosatu and attempt to splinter the organised working class. This is the only course left open to them to try and weaken the inevitable response of the working class to the worsening position of the SA economy and the mass resistance that will be stoked by another five year term of ANC rule and the implementation of the anti-working class National Development Plan. The ANC is calculating that if they can maintain a rump Cosatu as their loyal servant they will be able to use what remains of the federation as a treacherous fifth column in the labour movement paralleling the way that the National Union of Mineworkers operates in the mining industry following the massacre of mine workers at Marikana.

Time to found a new federation

There is no way that the pro-ANC Cosatu leaders acted in the way they did without a nod of approval from the highest levels of the ANC leadership. The only way to minimise the danger of a divided working class and to avoid being out manoeuvred by the ANC and their stooges in the Cosatu leadership is bold and swift action. The time has come for Numsa to lead the founding of a new trade union federation.

Up until the events of this week we had called for the formation of a Socialist Trade Union Network to unite workers in struggle on the key issues facing the working class – rising living costs, retrenchments, labour broking, service delivery, e-tolls etc. The purpose of such a call was to provide an organisational form that could act as a bridge from Cosatu’s inaction to working class unity on the basis of a programme of struggle without jeopardising the battle to reclaim Cosatu from the pro-ANC wing or raise unnecessary barriers to workers uniting in struggle regardless of union, federation or political affiliation. In the fast pace of developments this call has been superseded and the need to immediately move to found a new federation has been placed on the agenda. It falls to Numsa to make this call and lead the process.
Enormous potential and the danger of delay

Any delay will be used by the ANC to attempt to peel away some of the other eight unions that boycotted the SCEC with Numsa and win them back to the prison of the now emasculated Cosatu. Any delay will be used to sow confusion within the ranks of the unions led by the pro-ANC wing to limit the certain exodus of members to any new federation. Any delay will prevent the inevitable – and necessary – split in Cosatu from being as decisive as it needs to be.

The potential for a new federation is enormous. Ceppawu (Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union), one of the pro-ANC led unions, is facing a revolt. Four of its seven regions have opposed the action being taken against Vavi. The four regions have gone public claiming Ceppawu has no mandate to be acting in the manner that it is as no national executive committee meetings have been held since last year. The four regions have broken from the pro-ANC national leadership of Ceppawu. In their statement they say “the four regions at their congresses have thus resolved and mandated their leaderships to join the call that the suspension of [Vavi] be lifted with immediate effect”.

Undoubtedly similar processes are taking place in all the pro-ANC led unions. Numsa must rally the eight already supporting their stand and appeal to the membership of the pro-ANC led unions to join in founding a new federation. Those unions supporting Numsa must immediately make preparations to convene their own special congresses to prepare their members as Numsa did in December. Then the nine must swiftly move to call a founding conference for a new trade union federation to play the role that the Cosatu special congress should have played. Rank-and-file members of the right-wing dominated unions should be invited to send delegates as observers. The Numsa leadership must also call on the new generation of non-Cosatu unions that have developed as the crisis in Cosatu has built up over years – such the National Transport Movement and the South African Correctional Services Workers Union (SACOSWU) – to take part.

From its inception a new federation must be explicitly socialist if it is to offer a genuine way forward for the working class. It must be based on a fighting socialist programme than can unite the working class in struggle on the immediate issues described above but also link that to the need for the socialist transformation of society. The political struggle must be taken-up in the foundation of a new federation.

The sham of ANC support

The 2014 elections are a key battle field. As is increasingly recognised, the splitting of Cosatu reflects the incompatibility of the Alliance between Cosatu and the pro-capitalist ANC. The recent events are in step with the collapsing support for the ANC more generally. The ANC will boast of Cosatu’s continuing participation in the Tripartite Alliance in the 2014 elections. After this week’s events this claim, already threadbare, is completely hollow.

In the 2004 election twelve million did not vote. In 2009 this increased to 12.4 million. The largest trade union on the continent – The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa – based on the industrial working class has decided not to campaign for the ANC. The previous holder of the title of largest trade union – the NUM – saw its membership decimated after years of class collaboration with the mining bosses at the behest of the ANC. Especially after Marikana, the mass of mineworkers – the backbone of the working class – has simultaneously broken their political tie to the ANC and helped found the Workers and Socialist Party. The country is burning with record numbers of service delivery protests now averaging 32 per day. The students are in open revolt on the campuses. Support for the ANC is collapsing. Even ahead of the 2014 elections, the working class are already voting with their feet!

Such is the anger of the working class that there exist, side-by-side with each other, apparently contradictory attitudes towards the 2014 elections – a boycottist mood and a desire to punish the ANC at the polls. The former has the potential to increase the voter stay-away that has been developing particularly over the past two elections. This however has not prevented the ANC – the biggest frog in the small parliamentary pond – from gaining a substantial share of the vote (nearly seventy percent and just under two thirds in 2004 and 2009 respectively). In reality, the ANC’s share of the vote of the eligible voting population was reduced to 34% 2009 from 38% in 2004. In reality, this is a minority government. Despite this the ANC has presented itself as the party enjoying the support of the overwhelming majority. This has emboldened them to go on the offensive that culminated in Marikana, the abandonment of nationalisation, the adoption of the NDP, the youth wage subsidy, the implementation of e-tolls and an assault on hard won democratic rights.

On the other hand, the mood to punish the ANC at the polls has resulted in the highest level of voter registration ever – 80% according to the IEC. This suggests that people will vote for other parties not necessarily out of conviction, but to reduce the ANC’s vote. This could result in an increase in the vote for the pro-capitalist opposition parties, especially the Democratic Alliance (DA) or even Agang [a party formed by Mamphela Ramphele in February 2013]. Similarly the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) opposition party will benefit. Either way, the lack of a positive decision by Numsa for a definite alternative could complicate the path towards the socialist revolution in the immediate period ahead. Numsa’s current position, unfortunately, leaves a vacuum. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. It can be filled just as easily with left wing populism, or right wing reaction as it can with a genuine revolutionary socialist alternative which it is in the hands of Numsa to spearhead the formation of. By the time that Numsa’s schedule for a new party in 2015 arrives the path to a new mass workers party will be strewn with the debris of small pro-capitalist parties with both openly anti-working class programmes but others disguised with nationalist and and/or left populist.

Numsa’s courageous stance has placed them firmly in the position of the political vanguard of the working class. It is to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa that the working class is looking. But the situation demands action now. The rhythm of historical events cannot be determined by tempo of Numsa’s internal processes towards a workers’ party.

The intertwining of the political question

But this mass opposition needs to be harnessed into a positive alternative in 2014. Not to do so delivers the pro-ANC Cosatu leaders the prize that they are willing to destroy the federation for: the continued dominance of the ANC in the rule of this country and behind them the advancement of the interests of the capitalist class. They have admitted as much in citing “financial constraints” and “election work for the ANC” as excuses for not convening a special congress. In other words they are shamelessly hijacking the name and resources of Cosatu to place them at the service of the anti-working class ANC.

Whilst we applaud the historic decision of Numsa not to campaign for the ANC in 2014, not to throw their weight behind a working class socialist alternative contains dangers. Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim is clearly realising the limitations of Numsa’s current position on 2014. In the face of the defiance by the pro-ANC wing at the SCEC, comrade Jim therefore proposed taking Numsa’s SNC position a step further by saying it was “tempting” to propose a vote against the ANC. We consider this a step forward. In practice, actively not campaigning for the ANC naturally poses the question of how this is to be done. It can surely only mean voting for an alternative party.

Unless this is clarified the Numsa SNC decisions, even with the further clarification added by comrade Jim, remains ambiguous and susceptible to manipulation by enemies of Numsa and the working class. The unintended consequence of cautioning that “there is still no decision” to campaign against the ANC, could embolden the pro-ANC wing as it can look like hesitation on this decisive question on the part of the Numsa leadership. The ANC already assumed that this was the meaning of Numsa’s decision in their calculations before launching the latest assault at the SCEC. To them this threat to call for a vote against the ANC is not fundamentally different from the original SNC decision to withdraw support from the ANC. To them, comrade Jim’s threat merely reaffirms the original SNC decision and will therefore barely register.

Numsa’s enemies will not hesitate on any ambiguities in Numsa’s positions. For example, following comrade Jim’s remarks it could be argued that it suggests there is a gap between Numsa as an organisation and Numsa members as individuals. What other interpretation of Numsa’s decision not to campaign for the ANC is there other than that Numsa is simultaneously encouraging its members not to vote for the ANC? The ANC has already attempted to open up a division between Numsa along these lines. ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe attempted to dismiss Numsa’s decision not to campaign for the ANC as being of little importance by his casual suggestion that he expects individual Numsa members to still vote for the ANC. The failure to call for support for an alternative has opened up the space for this attempt to sow divisions because the question of how Numsa members should vote has been left unanswered. The attempt to draw a distinction between unions as “organisations” and “individual” union members is a subtler part of the many divide-and-rule tricks in the book of the class enemy.

In reality a union is nothing but its membership. Democratic decisions are binding on individuals in a union because of the understanding that the basic principle of trade unionism in strength in unity. We know that this is the Numsa leadership’s understanding of trade unionism and that they have been scrupulously democratic throughout the period of the crisis in Cosatu. So the comrades must be cautious not to make statements that give the capitalist class any traction in trying to undermine Numsa and slow the process of the building of the working class’s political independence.

The consolidation of the other eight unions supporting Numsa has also been weakened by the failure to propose a clear alternative to voting ANC in 2014. The tremendous potential for a political alternative was shown in the Numsa organised press conference with leaders of the other eight unions. As a group, Numsa and the other eight warned the Cosatu leadership that there was no Cosatu policy to give unconditional support to the ANC in 2014. In the words of Samwu General Secretary Walter Theledi “workers have never agreed that Cosatu should give the ANC a blank cheque”.

But the day after this press briefing, five of the eight unions pulled back from the brink and indicated that they would indeed be either campaigning for the ANC or calling on their members to vote ANC. This backtracking should not be a surprise. Anyone who challenges the ANC head-on as Numsa has done puts themselves in the line of fire. This is why the Numsa leadership can confidently be called courageous regardless of our criticisms of the limitations of the position adopted on the 2014 elections. But why would the leaders of the other eight unions stick their necks out further when no positive alternative is being offered. A break with the ANC would unleash an avalanche of ANC slander against them. The most effective defence against that would be to rally behind a definite alternative which would provide the political basis for the working class solidarity that must be the foundation of the new federation.

Clear guidance on 2014 is urgent!

As the crisis in Cosatu reaches its apogee and the 2014 elections rush toward us, the intertwining of all the strategic organisational questions are laid ever more clearly before the class. The general task is the building of the independence of the working class. That now means the urgent necessity for the founding of a new federation to unite and lead struggle. But this is only one half of the answer. The other half is the need to build a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme to give a lead in 2014 and take the fight onto the political plane.

At Numsa’s SNC, delegates, in their endorsement of the Secretariat Report adopted a set of criteria that should be used to appraise any political party. These included (1) the class composition of the party, (2) the class politics represented by the party’s programme, (3) the party’s track record, (4) the extent to which the party has democratic structures. These criteria were used to explicitly reject supporting the new Economic Freedom Fighters and Agang SA. In rejecting the EFF, attention was drawn to their failure to call for nationalisation on the basis of workers’ control or clearly naming the alternative to capitalism as socialism. As a minimum, we believe that Numsa should issue the criteria described above, already adopted as policy at the SNC, as voting guidelines to its members and promote them in a high profile campaign.

Given the parties that are likely to contest the 2014 elections, this in practice amounts to calling for a vote for WASP. From the above it is clear that supporting WASP complements Numsa’s internal decision making processes. It is clear that WASP meets Numsa’s criteria. WASP was born out of the struggles of the mineworkers. WASP stands for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers’ control and management, as the basis for constructing a socialist society. In its short life, WASP has been central to the struggles of the mineworkers and led and engaged with all manner of struggles of other workers, communities and youth. WASP has a democratic and federal structure in order to lay the basis for the maximum unity of the working class. In the run-up to their SNC, WASP invited Numsa to “take its place in the leadership of WASP”. We repeat that call with growing urgency as the 2014 elections loom.

WASP has been set up with a federal structure. Upon the basis of agreement with a basic socialist programme, organisations and individuals can unite under the WASP umbrella. We believe this is the only way to begin uniting those forces that can lay the basis for a genuine mass workers party in the future. We are taking an inclusive approach to the drawing up of election lists for the 2014 elections and those candidates we hope to send into the National Assembly. WASP’s federal structure offers Numsa the opportunity to send its own candidates into the National Assembly under the WASP umbrella. The only requirement would be adherence to the basic programme and principles of WASP, cooperation with other WASP representatives, participation in the leading bodies of WASP and a commitment to help build and develop the party. This includes the crucial requirement that all elected representatives of WASP are recallable by the party and will only take the average wage of a skilled worker with the remainder of the MPs salary going back into the party. This is the only way to guard against the corruption and co-option of workers representatives that the state institutions that facilitate the capitalist classes’ rule encourage.

Even a small group of MPs in the next parliament would be an important ancillary to the struggles that will be waged in the workplaces and the communities in the next period. Numsa’s current answer to the political crisis facing the working class was the decision at their SNC to launch a Movement for Socialism. We intend to play a full part in this but have raised elsewhere our criticism that it is a significant limitation that this initiative is not clearly a call for a campaign to build a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. Using the WASP umbrella to send workers’ representatives into parliament in 2014 does not preclude the widest possible consultation taking place now and after the elections on the road to a mass workers’ or labour party. On the contrary, imagine how immeasurably the case for the Movement for Socialism would be strengthened by already having demonstrated the appetite amongst the working class for such a movement by having elected representatives even at this early stage. In pursuing such a twin tactic, Numsa would make an invaluable contribution to laying the foundation for a new mass workers party on a socialist programme.