Lessons to be learned from Cosatu’s 25 years

Posted on November 30, 2010


The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) turns 25 in December. But the birthday celebrations around the country will be dampened by heightened tension and some mildly acrimonious outbursts resulting from the content of the government’s New Growth Path (NGP) for the economy and the manner in which it was announced.

Like the 1996 Growth Employment and Redistribution Programme, the NGP was formulated within the ANC and publicly released for discussion without consultation with Cosatu, the ANC trade union ally. It is also based on the premise of economic growth leading to redistribution, the antithesis of the labour movement’s position.

Once again, the policies put forward by the numerically largest constituency in the governing alliance have been sidelined; Cosatu members in government will have to continue supporting decisions to which the federation is opposed.

There is nothing new in this “two hats” situation, nor in the grumbles and the tension: they are merely clear indications that the contradictions that have dogged the country’s major labour federation for most of its existence, are still very much in place — along with often knee-jerk denials of any real problems. But during the earlier years of its existence, Cosatu was very much more openly the scene of bitter internal wrangling around the single issue that still persists: principled unity.

This argument about who should unite with whom and in what way, is starting again to be heard more loudly. It will be played out against a background of laudatory — and often justified — statements about the labour federation’s numerical growth over the past quarter century. But one critical factor tends to be overlooked: Cosatu also represents a stalled project of trade union and worker unity, paradoxically because, in the name of unity, it tied itself to the “broad church” of the ANC alliance.

A single federation of unions in one country was a declared priority when Cosatu came into being in December 1985. It remains, at least rhetorically, the goal not only of Cosatu, but of the other three federations that now exist, along with many — if not all — independent unions.

At one level, therefore, there is an apparently unanimous urge to merge — and the three smaller federations have taken some stumbling steps in this direction. The Federation of Unions of South Africa and the National Council of Trade Unions for example, agreed in November 2007 to merge as the South African Confederation of Trade Unions (Sacotu). But that bond is still to be finalised.

The Confederation of South African Workers’ Unions has been involved in on-off talks about getting together with Sacotu, while the Cosatu leadership has also repeated invitations to the other federations to talk about coming together, but only under the ANC umbrella.

However, these moves are all signs of how new economic and political conditions have altered social relations and are changing perceptions and prejudices that are the baggage of apartheid. Memories of a racially divided past and of trade unions that collaborated with the policies of government or, in some cases, were outspoken supporters of segregation, no longer seriously hamper labour collaboration.

Unions, recognised by the previous regime, acceded to the apartheid government’s segregationist policies, some having separate sections for workers not classified “white”. Today the membership of these unions is often broadly reflective of the demographics of South Africa.

One reason is that many white workers, previously sustained as a racially defined labour aristocracy by business and government, quickly adapted. They did so when their benefactors dumped apartheid and they found themselves again as part of a broader working class.

Not that sometimes rampant racism does not still exist, even within the labour movement. It does. But today it is a more marginal issue.

This has resulted in a growing awareness among trade unionists at all levels, that the manipulation and use of racism by business and successive governments was one of the most successful examples of divide and rule tactics used anywhere. It has also underlined for many unionists, the danger of a too comfortable and close relationship with the government of the day. As such, the conditions for the creation of a single, national, trade union organisation seem more propitious now than they did 25 years ago.

The main stumbling block remains Cosatu’s call for unity of the labour movement with the ANC and in pursuit of a “national democratic revolution”. This is defined as “the establishment of a democratic and non-racial South Africa, economic transformation and continued process of political and economic democratisation”.

Seen as a necessary stage on the road to “socialism” it is an argument that often resulted in bitter clashes in the earlier years of the federation. That was when Cosatu found itself faced with both the antagonism of many officially recognised unions as well as the vicious repression of the apartheid state.

Because the embryonic “labour giant”, generally eschewed the concept of stages of revolution, it was also not accepted by the then existing, and exiled, ANC-led alliance. From the exile viewpoint, it boiled down to: either you are for us, or you are against us, an enemy.

At the time a self-annointed true representative of the South African workers already existed: the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu). In 1955, the SACP, formed underground two years earlier, helped to establish and, consequently, dominated, Sactu. It became the effective trade union wing of the ANC.

Although Sactu was never banned, the leadership followed the ANC and SACP into exile, motivated by an SACP theory that South Africa was a “fascist state”. According to this theory, any trade unions that emerged would either be crushed or become mere puppets of the state; only the exiled Sactu, based mainly in London and Lusaka, could truly represent the working class of South Africa.

As a result Sactu was all but moribund on the ground in South Africa when the new unions burst onto the scene after a series of strikes in 1973. The new formations did not look to London or Lusaka, let alone Moscow, for advice and guidance; they mushroomed in varying forms in different parts of the country in reaction to prevailing economic and political conditions; reality began to confound the abstract theory of the SACP.

The new unions also began to unite because it was obviously in their interests to do so. Their prime goal was the unity of workers as workers, irrespective of race, gender, religious or political persuasion.

But the only anti-apartheid political organisation of any significance was the ANC, allied with the SACP, a self defined workers’ party. The exiled alliance began to engage with the new unions, establishing contact with several former Sactu members who had joined the upsurge: a battle for influence and control began.

The ANC was, and is, a multi-class “broad church”, and its ally, the SACP, professed to be a workers’ party. There was, in fact, no other pole of attraction on the anti-apartheid side as unions influenced by Black Consciousness ideology soon discovered when they looked briefly at the Pan Africanist Congress.

By 1987, when Sactu dissolved itself, the fight for influence and possible control of Cosatu was solidly underway. It was between the “Workerists” and the “Charterists”. The former were a disparate grouping that supported the idea of an independent, socialist party dedicated to worker interests and who opposed cross-class alliances; the latter supported the adoption of the Freedom Charter of the ANC and advocated joining the ANC-SACP alliance.

The Charterists borrowed from SACP theory, maintaining that the defeat of apartheid would be the first stage of the necessary, ANC-led, national democratic revolution. By 1990, the bulk of Cosatu unions had fallen solidly in behind the ANC.

However, the National Union of Metalworkers, with its core drawn from the workerist-led Metal and Allied Workers’ Union, accepted this as only a temporary, tactical step toward the goal of establishing a workers’ party. But, by 1996, Cosatu membership of the ANC-led alliance was firmly cemented and the Cosatu congress had accepted the SACP as the workers’ party.

This did not put paid to the arguments about the nature of unity. Although there is no longer any coherent workerist grouping within Cosatu, there is considerable unhappiness about the state of the alliance. Stresses, particularly over the past decade, are starting to tell.

More questions are being asked about whether the ANC and the existing state are “terrains of struggle” that can be won from within by the working class. Critics wonder if this concept might not be as erroneous as the earlier “fascist state” theory.

These are some of the arguments that are swirling around as Cosatu celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary. They are not likely to go away; in fact, they may grow louder and more strident in coming months and years.

What the end result will be, five or ten, let alone 25 years from now is anybody’s guess. But there are certainly lessons to be learned from an honest appraisal of the past 25 years.

Posted in: Commentary