Is COSATU at a crossroad? No, it’s just irrelevant

| Leonard Gentle
Young men wait at the side of the road for work. Photo by Masixole Feni.

Tomorrow, May 1, South Africa celebrates Workers’ Day. In the second of three articles, Leonard Gentle analyses the recent history of the labour movement in South Africa.

Is the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) at a crossroad? No, working class struggles are just passing it by, as activists build a new movement and COSATU largely becomes irrelevant to that movement.

This overshadows media speculations over whether there will be a more difficult terrain for collective bargaining; what will happen to the future of the eight, or is it nine, dissident unions; and what general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi might or might not do.

COSATU’s history is a noble one written in workers’ blood. That it should implode is tragic. That it should disintegrate in such an inglorious manner is farcical.

In 2014, we had the longest strike in South Africa’s mining history – a source of renewal for the working class – and it passed COSATU and its affiliates by. In the same year, South Africa had an election in which more than a million people voted for a party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, that opportunistically embraces the language of militant left wing politics – nationalisation, redistribution of wealth, and insisting that ministers and public officials be forced to use public services. This was the language of COSATU in a bygone era, but these days COSATU finds itself alongside a government against whom all these slogans are being directed.

For the last 10 to 15 years, we have had more protests spread across a wider terrain of townships in the country since the peak period of the mass movement of the 1980s. Yet all those struggles had nothing to do with the labour movement, let alone COSATU. And when a new wave of industrial strikes broke out from 2013, they occurred outside the COSATU unions and the official structures of the labour movement and associated labour laws.

The immediate reason for the demise of COSATU can be traced to the disgruntled forces which overthrew the president of the ANC and of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. The South African Communist Party (SACP), COSATU and the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) made a pact with Jacob Zuma that, in return for seats at the table of the state, they would champion a deeply flawed individual into the highest office. And then the conspirators fell out.

Meanwhile, throughout the Mbeki years the victims of his neoliberalism – the new working class of urban and rural poor have been in increasing revolt. The system of labour relations and compliant trade unions kept a lid on the rising dissatisfaction, until the revolts spilled over into the communities surrounding the platinum mines in the North West, and found a disgraced National Union of Mineworkers without the moral authority to police the dissent.

And then came Marikana

From the viewpoint of peace and productivity the post-1994 collective bargaining system has certainly done its job. Strikes have shown a steady decline since 1995. But from the side of ordinary working class people the system has been a disaster on every score.

Inequality is increasing and all the indicators show increased unemployment – peaking near 40% – as well as the increased informalisation and casualisation of workers. Labour peace has come at the cost of the restructuring of the working class towards the very flexible labour market demanded by big business. Workers’ wages and salaries as a percentage of national income have been dropping every year and were overtaken in 1999 by profits. In other words, there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

But there has been one area in which black workers have benefited – the policy of affirmative action applied in the public sector has meant that a whole layer of black workers employed in local, provincial and national government departments, in the police, in the parastatals and in other services have moved into white collar jobs and into lower and middle management in the public sector. They are the beneficiaries of the new post-apartheid South Africa and a significant component of COSATU membership today.


And then there is Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). All COSATU unions, and NACTU, have cashed in on BEE. NUM started this partnership, using its access to workers’ provident funds and setting up its own investment company. This was followed by SACTWU and SACCAWU and practically every COSATU affiliate, including COSATU itself in setting up Kopano ke Matla.

Apart from the contradiction of trade unions becoming capitalists, the investment companies and the take over of provident funds also offered fertile ground for corruption, with office bearers and shop stewards sitting on boards and being paid attendance fees and emoluments.

But at the deepest level the causes for the problems within COSATU lie in the major structural changes that have happened to the working class over the last 20 years of neo-liberal capitalism and the re-alignment of COSATU’s membership.

COSATU has changed in composition from a largely blue-collar working class formation in the 1980s and 1990s to the largely public sector, white collar federation it is today.

Until Marikana, NUM was the biggest single union. But NUM has moved on from a union of coal-face workers, to a union of white collar above-ground technicians. The bulk of COSATU membership is now drawn from NEHAWU, SADTU, CWU, SAMWU, POPCRU and so forth. Nearly one third of COSATU members now have degrees.

Now the chickens have come home to roost.

Of course COSATU may live on as a collection of affiliated sweetheart unions who get involved in collective bargaining and own buildings and administer provident funds and medical aids. But its days as a “labour movement”, let alone as a revolutionary force, are over.

Leonard Gentle is director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (Ilrig). The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. No inference should be made on whether these reflect the editorial position of GroundUp..

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TOPICS:  Labour

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