Posted on October 2, 2010


Cosatu is not a socialist party or organisation. It is a trade union federation; an organisation of workers fighting for and protecting the interests of workers.

That point was highlighted this week by Gwede Mantashe, former National Union of Mineworkers general secretary and now secretary-general of the ANC and national chair of the SA Communist Party (SACP).

This means, quite simply, that trade unions are the basic organisations of sellers of labour, irrespective of differences of language, gender, ethnicity, religious belief or political persuasion. Unions should be, therefore, classic examples of unity which not only accepts, but cherishes diversity.

Mantashe made the point on Wednesday night at a seminar in Cape Town hosted by the Centre for Conflict Resolution. It is a point made many times in this column over the years. As the other speaker at the seminar, I agreed with Mantashe on this point, but we still agreed to differ.

For, along with a number of trade unionists, some of whom were in the audience, I find it divisive — a threat to unity in diversity — as well as confusing when Cosatu then commits itself to be “an equal partner” in a political alliance that governs the country.

Especially when that alliance is led by the ANC, which Cosatu labels a “multi-class” party that has been dedicated to “pro-business policies”. Complicating matters further is the fact that Cosatu, with 1,.9 million members, is at the same time committed to supporting and “building”, as the “workers’ party”, the SACP, with a claimed 53 000-strong membership.

It was this party political involvement that led to bitter and ongoing wrangles within Cosatu unions. These cannot be dismissed as mere internecine union feuding; they relate directly to the succession battle at Polokwane in December and to its aftermath.

Mantashe maintained that it was essential that officials and union members not deviate from the policies of the federation. When such policies relate to democratically decided action by unions for clear objectives in the interests of workers then there should be no dispute. But why should officials or union members be obliged to support one or other individual for leadership of a political party of which they may not even be members?

Or even if those officials are among the 637 000 members of the ANC, why should they be obliged to support — by the outside agency of Cosatu — one particular candidate? As Mantashe said, Cosatu is not a political party.

It cannot then pretend to operate, as does the SACP, on the basis of democratic centralism. This system, which critics maintain often degenerates into a form of centralised democracy, is one whereby a majority decision— often taken by the executive — compels all to obey it.

The tensions, particularly within the National Union of Metalworkers and within elements of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union, are a direct consequence of the blind obedience demanded in relation to the succession battle.

Even those trade union members of the ANC who argued that Cosatu should ignore the succession battle and instead concentrate on, develop and put forward clear alternative policies — and demand their implementation were forced to choose either Jacob Zuma or Thabo Mbeki.

Some chose Mbeki as the lesser of two evils; as a means of buying time until the election next year when, perhaps, another candidate could emerge. They too have been castigated.

But Mantashe maintains that what happened at Polokwane strengthened Cosatu and began a process of transformation which should arrive in nine months. I and many others will closely watch this gestation and await with interest the September birth.

Posted in: Archive - 2008