What Cosatu shop stewards really think

Terry Bell
Terry Bell

Critical elements of the long-awaited and debated survey of the attitudes of Cosatu shop stewards were finally made public in Johannesburg last night. And they are likely to cause a considerable stir within labour and political circles, especially about the possible future launch of a union-backed labour party.

Professor Eddie Webster of the University of Witwatersrand and Moeletsi Mbeki, chairman of the Forum for Public Dialogue (FPD) presented the findings at a forum discussion at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. They were joined by Mohamed Motala who, with Webster, was a member of the Community Agency for Social Equity team that conducted the survey, commissioned by the FPD. It was the first study of its kind since similar research was conducted in 1991.

However, news of the latest survey was released weeks before the crucial ANC congress in Mangaung in December last year. In an unauthorised statement, the then chief executive of the FPD, Prince Mashele, maintained that the majority of shop stewards did not support Jacob Zuma’s re-election as president of the ANC. He added that the survey also revealed that Cosatu shop stewards “have no confidence in the SACP (SA Communist Party) and want Cosatu to form a labour party”.

In what was widely seen as an attempt to undermine Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, Mashele also subsequently claimed that Vavi and Mbeki had conspired to delay publication of the findings. This was because of “dirty” financial dealings involving Mbeki and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA.

The FPD board, of which I was then a member, and the research team were furious. The FPD released a statement pointing out that analysis of the raw data had not been completed and that the information leaked was at best “distorted”. Mashele was summoned to a disciplinary hearing, but resigned.

Last night (28 August) the murk about the survey was finally cleared and should provide political parties, analysts and the labour movement with considerable food for thought. However, because the survey was conducted for the most part before the watershed that was Marikana, there are bound to be debates about if and how perceptions and attitudes may have changed in the wake of the bloodshed and subsequent revelations.

The recent rows surrounding the suspension of Vavi and apparent threats to the cohesion of the ANC-led alliance have also triggered much more discussion about the possible emergence of a labour party. Supporters of this concept may gain heart from the fact that 65 per cent of the federation’s shop stewards surveyed said they would vote for such a party if it existed — and was backed by Cosatu. In the absence of such a choice, 90 per cent pledged their votes to the ANC.

One of the most interesting findings is in the changes over 20 years in the education levels of shop stewards. In the 1991 survey, published in the following year, 16 per cent of shop stewards had not progressed beyond primary school. Last year, that number had fallen to 3%. And while 46 per cent had less than Grade 8 education in 1991, 39 per cent of today’s shop stewards are high school graduates and 36 per cent have tertiary education. These are the men and women who are the first line of contact with both managements and the union leaderships.

But a worrying aspect for the trade union movement is how few younger workers today hold shop steward positions. Twenty years ago, 78 per cent of Cosatu shop stewards were under the age of 40. Today that figure, likely to have remained unchanged since the completion of the survey, is 46 per cent. Only 10 per cent are under the age of 30.

There is no age breakdown in terms of political party affiliation, but only 8 per cent of the 2 052 shop stewards polled were members of the SACP, as against 68 per cent who held ANC membership. However, 44 per cent said they would vote for the SACP if it stood in an election, but 47 per cent would not do so in any poll.

Significantly, when given the choice of voting for existing parties (including the SACP), 90 per cent (down from 96 per cent in 1991) would remain faithful to the ANC, with only 2 per cent (up from 1.3 per cent) giving their votes to the SACP.

A majority — 53 per cent — also felt that the ANC-led alliance was in good shape, while 37 per cent differed and 12 per cent of respondents had no view one way or the other. However, 88 per cent supported the view that Cosatu should back the ANC in coming provincial and national elections and 71 per cent felt the the federation should have a say in who should lead the ANC.

Given an open choice of who they would like to see elected as president of the ANC at the Mangaung conference, a slew of names emerged, headed by Jacob Zuma (43 per cent) and followed by Kgalema Motlanthe (36 per cent). Vavi, with 6 per cent support, led a range of others, including Cyril Ramaphosa (4 per cent), Trevor Manuel (3 per cent) and Tokyo Sexwale (2 per cent).

Perhaps much more importably than the personalities at the head of the ANC and, therefore, government, are attitudes expressed about the economy and, in particular, nationalisation. Once again there has been a considerable change in attitudes over the past 20 years.

State ownership — nationalisation — takes third place in a hierarchy of views on the economy, with 65 per cent of respondents in favour. Topping the preferences is the 84 per cent vote for workers having a share in company profits, with 73 per cent in favour of government regulation to direct investment.

In 1991, 95 per cent favoured profit sharing, 67 per cent wanted nationalisation and only 16 per cent favoured government regulations on investment. Significantly, 17 per cent of the respondents 20 years ago, were in favour of privatisation.

Terry Bell is a journalist specialising in political analysis and labour.

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