The dismissal of Zwelinzima Vavi foreshadows another huge dip in the decline of COSATU – a federation that has split into two camps, become a feeble voice in national affairs and recently parted ways with one of its most powerful industrial unions.
Many ardent progressives, democrats and supporters of the trade union movement are saddened by the turn of events.
In commentary, one cannot help but repeat certain points made in the past. At the same time, new perspectives about the consequences come to the fore.
It is best to see the COSATU split at this stage through several connected observations – and to let readers draw a picture of where things might be headed based on their needs and interests.
Firstly, we need to note that the split is between those who see COSATU as an equal partner in the alliance and those who want COSATU to be obedient to the ANC on political matters. In terms of the latter view, Cosatu is free to express its views, but once the father body takes a decision, the federation must fall into line.
But a sober view would realise that an alliance between a political party and a trade union federation will always involve tension and robust debate. There will never be agreement on everything, especially as (in this case) the ANC is a broad church and federation embraces socialism.
On joining the alliance, COSATU managed internal critics to the marriage by insisting on the right to differ and space for continual discussion of socialist imperatives. On both sides, skilful and astute leadership facilitated the building of a strong alliance, tensions notwithstanding.
But in recent years, some influential in both the ANC and COSATU have displayed a desire for all-out ANC control of COSATU. They have become greedy for control. This group includes those in COSATU who see trade unions as a stepping stone to positions in the ANC and political office.
Leaders like ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe opposed this total control agenda; he challenged moves by his comrades to crush troublesome voices in Cosatu and equally opposed threats by anti-alliance unions to withdraw from COSATU. Mantashe appealed for balance, but was in the end left on the sidelines by an influential few who were champed at the bit to bounce NUMSA and Vavi out of the federation.
From Mantashe’s reaction, it is clear that some union leaders – in a bid to ingratiate themselves with the ruling party – want to be more ANC than the ANC itself. These role-players would do well to listen to Mantashe's comments about COSATU, issued last week: “In their rush to hurt each other, these leaders in Cosatu may find there will be nothing left of it”.
The split in COSATU will weaken the other alliance partners and the alliance itself. The Communist Party stands to lose massive ground. The party sees itself as influencing the mass of workers to support the ANC in elections. In this regard, it sees itself as working politically – especially near elections – to persuade the worker bodies in society to formally support the ANC.
A split in COSATU will thus have an adverse affect on the party’s influence in the ANC. In addition, the Alliance will be weakened, especially if Vavi throws his weight behind another political party, or if large numbers of workers change their political allegiances in response to Vavi’s dismissal.
Emerging political formations – those hoping to build an additional political voice to the left of the ANC – appear to be happy about Vavi’s dismissal. Almost all of them have tried to recruit him to their cause. These formations need Vavi not just to strengthen their popular appeal, but also to help in strategy formation. Left groups are often afflicted by narrowness and simplistic understandings of the link between national liberation and class issues. Vavi would help them build a broad base and identify campaigns that will have broad societal appeal.
But, for now, none of them know which way Vavi will go. Sources claim that Vavi will shun the role of alternative political leader – that he is more likely to lead a move to build a new federation, one that unites Numsa, the seven pro-Vavi COSATU unions and various other labour bodies.
Even if Vavi does not join any of their initiatives, leaders of the new left-leaning forces welcome the developments. They feel it signals a new phase in their bid to exert a leftward pull on the political system. As they see it, untold thousands of workers, angered by Vavi’s dismissal may look for new political homes and may turn to these new role players.
And Cosatu? The days ahead look cheerless for COSATU. If the federation continues in the mode it has up to now – inward looking, largely silent on national affairs, struggling to raise subs from member unions and limited policy impact – its decline will accelerate. In the light of such challenges, taking a decision to dismiss Vavi is akin to a non-decision – to fiddling while Rome burns.
For workers, meantime, there is still no let up to the pressures they face. In the last few years, workers share of national income has declined and, as Dennis George of Fedusa has pointed out, this has decreased workers’ spending power and led to greater inequality. As Stats South Africa reported in 2010, half of all workers earn less than R2500 a month. At the same time, we have seen the rise of informal and vulnerable workers – an estimated one third of the workforce are employed as casual workers. Such workers earn low wages, are denied basic benefits, have no trade union representation and are deprived of the chance of advancement in their lives. In this context, the latest shenanigans in Cosatu constitute a further setback to workers.
No-one knows exactly what will happen – for example mass-level responses, new alignments and other breakaways – as a result of Vavi’s dismissal from Cosatu. But we can be sure of this: more flux and change in the political landscape which in turn will fuel shifts in voting patterns in future elections.