Resistance grows as the political edges fray

Posted on April 3, 2011


The threat of further job losses, the continuing tussle with WalMart, ongoing allegations of corruption and mounting anger over the government’s economic orientation is putting great strain on traditional trade union alliances and on the unions themselves. As one senior Cosatu official admits: “Things are fraying at the edges.”

Service delivery protests aside, the union focus here tends to be on the coming local government elections. But the strains being felt are not a uniquely South African phenomenon: the specifics may differ, but the overall picture is the same virtually everywhere from Britain and Greece to Portugal and the United States. In Egypt, the fledgling independent trade union movement launched amid considerable optimism only weeks ago is already finding itself embattled and having to fight back.

This global development seems to be a consequence of what many bankers claim is the “gradual recovery” of the word’s “fragile economy”. But, as the unions tend to point out, such improvements are paid for largely by the unemployed and working poor. “We are paying for their crisis,” is a common labour movement cry.

In these circumstances, some trade unions have their backs to the wall, but as the pressures have grown, so have the signs of a willingness — and considerable ability — to resist. This has seen examples of links being forged with other non-governmental groups concerned with rising joblessness and social and political instability.

Such links were mooted at a civil society conference called by Cosatu last year and resulted in bitter criticism of Cosatu by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi responded by labelling Mantashe and the ANC “paranoid”.

Since then, and in spite of the usual murmurings of unity and bridge building, tensions have continued, along with manifestations of dissent from within the ANC-led alliance. The major — and Cosatu and ANC-aligned — municipal workers’ union, Samwu, for example, warned that it might withdraw electoral support from the ANC.

This followed reports from union branches around the country, where most Samwu members are employed by ANC-led councils, that union officials faced “increasing difficulty” in persuading members to vote for and otherwise support the governing party. “We issued a statement to that effect,” says Samwu spokesperson, Tahir Sema.

The statement was issued this month, before the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) meeting scheduled to start on Tuesday this week. When the meeting was cancelled and rescheduled until after the May 18 poll, it led to rumours that the often mooted split in the alliance was looming.

“But there is no question of a split. It was just that to raise all the issues at this stage could have harmed the ANC election campaign that Cosatu is pledged to support,” says a National Union of Metalworkers shop steward.

However, Cosatu spokesperson, Patrick Craven denies that fears about the election campaign resulted in the postponement. “There just was not time enough to discuss all the issues raised for the agenda,” he says.

Items for discussion are first circulated to affiliates for discussion before a CEC meeting. Theoretically, the various affiliates, having debated the issues, then mandate their office bearers to take particular stands at the CEC.

There are certainly a great number of highly contentious items that the country’s biggest labour federation is now scheduled to discuss in June. These range from the political and economic situation to the living wage campaign, the potential arrival in Africa of WalMart and to threats by a newly formed employer body to sack a further 28 000 workers in the garment industry.

Samwu may also table complaints by members about their treatment as well as repeating allegations of widespread corruption and nepotism at municipal level, especially in Limpopo. Had the CEC been held this month, the issue of the local government elections and the way in which candidates were selected would almost certainly have dominated the meeting.

As it is, in the past two weeks, there have been open rebellions by some members of the governing alliance, among them Cosatu-affiliated trade unionists. These led to Cosatu’s North West provincial secretary, Solly Phetoe this week calling on all Cosatu members to remain loyal to the ANC.

“Let us close the book of complaining,” he said, while admitting that there were now candidates for local councils who were “not nominated by the real ANC branches and supported by members of the communities”. The reason some elected individuals were removed from the list of candidates was, he added, “due to factions, due to friends, due to business opportunities, including populists in the ANC”.

Last week it was the turn of the SA Communist Party (SACP) to try to call some of its errant members in the province to order for having formed the “Lebaleng Communist Party” (LCP) that has fielded candidates to contest the May 18 poll. According to the SACP, the setting up of this group amounted to “political and organizational criminality”.

However, SACP spokesperson Kaiser Mohau also laid part of the blame for this situation at the door of the ANC. “We are aware that some ANC provincial leaders are equally responsible for this crisis,” he said, referring to the removal of candidates from the ANC election list who had been nominated by branches and communities.

The SACP and the LCP are now about to embark on a “disciplinary process” with the SACP threatening to go to court over the “theft” of the party’s name. However, this and issues about candidate lists are likely to be papered over by the time the Cosatu CEC meets in June, effectively putting them on hold until the run-up to the 2014 general election.

When the CEC does get together, it will be in the midst of the annual round of wage negotiations — and in the face of what seem certain to be rising food and transport costs. The working poor and the unemployed will be hardest hit, making for a change in union focus while the political edges continue to fray.