Hats, ideology & confused unity

Posted on April 5, 2013


The newly arrived diplomat was puzzled: he had noted that Cosatu opposed South Africa’s recently launched National Development Plan (NDP) which was supported by an ANC government that included Cosatu members. He was also aware that the South African Communist Party (SACP), to which most of the Cosatu leadership belong, supports the NDP.

I explained the confusing “three hats” argument; that Cosatu and SACP members when wearing their ANC hats, are bound by ANC policies and decisions, especially when holding cabinet posts. “This is politically schizophrenic,” the diplomat noted.

Indeed, it is. And this column has tried to deal with and explain these contradictions over the years.

Now, with an apparently major rift having opened up between elements of Cosatu and the government, the ANC and the SACP, it seems imperative to revisit this topic. The importance lies in the fact that ideological rigidity and blind faith by those either in power or with power to wield, can have far-reaching consequences for everyone.

So far, and despite obvious bitterness and vitriolic sniping, the rigid ideological foundation on which all sides in this public spat stand, remains intact. It is this that enables South Africa’s political schizophrenia to continue.

So a fractious unity remains, despite the latest often jargon-laden rows raging between individuals representing factions in Cosatu and the SACP. These go well beyond the “robust debates” of past altercations.

Deputy public works minister Jeremy Cronin, who doubles as deputy general secretary of the SACP, is the one protagonist; National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) general secretary, Irvin Jim the other. The verbal brawling started after Jim was asked in a newspaper interview why he thought Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was being targetted for criticism by the ANC and government.

Jim’s response can be summed up in a single sentence of his: “The state supports the ruling class and Vavi represents the working class.” However, he went on to maintain that there was also no contradiction between this statement and the fact that Cosatu leaders had been “redeployed” to the state. “The state is not monolithic. It can be engaged,” he explained.

This is the essence of the ideology that drives the SACP and the leadership of Cosatu: a fixed belief that the ANC is the vehicle and parliament — along with control of other social structures — is the route to an ill-defined “socialist future” for the country. Except that Jim and those he represents, are concerned about the present leadership of the ANC.

So began the jargon-ridden polemic between Jim and Cronin, with Cronin accusing the union leader of “vulgar economism”, “undialectical metaphysics” and “psuedo-Marxist militancy”. Jim duly responded by categorising Cronin as Marxism’s (self proclaimed) “Pope Jeremy the First”.

Most rank and file workers are probably either disinterested or oblivious to these lengthy polemics; outside observers are probably equally confused and bored by them. However, they do indicate a developing — and possibly important — current within the trade union movement that is manifest in the growing disquiet about the actions of state, government and some leaderships within the country’s largest labour federation.

In an increasingly harsh economic climate, with yet another fuel price rise still to be felt across the board, workers are also more concerned with pap and vleis (bread and butter) issues, with better pay and more secure employment. Trade unions that do not adequately service their members or that are perceived not to be acting in the interests of workers are also suffering the consequences.

The most obvious example is the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) that, despite assertions to the contrary, continues to haemorrhage members. Some have joined the more militant sounding Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, a number have dropped by the wayside and others have affiliated to Numsa.

Although Cosatu has had, since its formation in 1985, a policy of one union, one industry, this has been observed in the breach. On the mines, the NUM majority has, for 18 years, existed alongside a Numsa minority, along with the formerly racially exclusive Mynwerkersunie (now Solidarity).

In the wake of the Marikana tragedy, NUM and the SACP were widely perceived to side with the ANC, the police and the state. In contrast, Numsa’s militant statements probably reflected more accurately the feelings of workers on the ground: “The police have violently reminded us once again. …that [the state] is always an organ of class rule and class oppression”.

This seems a classic example of an organisation responding to pressure from below — from rank and file members and potential members — while still retaining a commitment to an underlying dogma. Because the Numsa leadership is not challenging the fundamental belief that the ANC is the vehicle and parliament the route to an SACP-led future.

What all the sniping and verbal vitriol boils down to is a simple belief in the present ANC leadership, for all its faults, or a counter-belief that the leadership can be changed in order to correct existing faults.

But with fewer than 10 per cent of Cosatu members being members of the SACP, it is probably fair to say that such polemics cause widespread disinterest — even annoyance — among rank and file unionists. It is much the same with the ongoing arguments about the Brazil Russia India China SA (BRICS) bloc.

The generally cautious acceptance of BRICS by the Cosatu leadership again seems out of step with the membership. Distrust, even fear, is expressed about the relationship, particularly with Brazil, India and China.

Garment workers point out that Chinese imports have all but annihilated the local footwear industry and severely damaged the garment sector. Numsa has also complained about Arcelor-Mittal closing down local steel lines and moving production to India.

This week, Brazil was a particular target. The Cosatu-affiliated Food and Allied Workers Union — significantly, backed by Numsa — marched in protest against the “dumping” of cheap Brazilian poultry products on the local market. “I don’t care about BRICS, we stand to lose 40 000 jobs,” a Fawu shop steward said.