Democracy needs labour unity

Posted on August 23, 2013


“One is workers’ unity and evermore shall be so.” So goes an old labour movement song summarising the prime goal of trade unionism. It is also captured in the slogan: An injury to one is an injury to all. Equally, however, a disruption to one usually means a disruption to all.

By the egalitarian standard of solidarity, the South African labour movement is in crisis, despite constant denials that this is the case. However, if this reality is confronted and most unions return to basic principles, it is possible that a strong, democratic and united coalition of trade unions will emerge in future.

And this would include not just Cosau unions, but also those of the Federation of Unions (Fedusa), the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) and the independent organisations. Together they comprise the 196 bodies recognised by the registrar of trade unions.

At the moment, there is no sign of this. Even the rush this week by both the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Cosatu to support the strike call by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) is an indication less of solidarity than of a desperate attempt to ensure that that federation does not come apart at the seams.

And the main seam that appears in danger of being rent from the fabric of Cosatu is Numsa. It is against this background of hostility between the Numsa leadership and that of Cosatu and NUM, that this gesture must be seen.

It ties in with the statement made on Monday by Bheki Ntshalishali, the man who has stepped into the shoes of the controversially suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. On a national radio programme Ntshalishali noted: “Unity and cohesion are very important.” If anything this is an understatement, given the dominant ideological strain within the tripartite alliance.

Dogmatic adherence to the the ANC and its allies is a legacy of the days of exile when opposition to apartheid was the only glue that bound together official communists, socialists, capitalists, nationalists and political opportunists. Among this host were idealists, cynics, thieves, rogues, the craven and the brave. In short, a good cross-section of an authoritarian and racist society.

Added to this mix were individuals who, for one or other reason, served the interests of the apartheid state and had been infiltrated into the exile ranks from as early as 1963. Awareness of this created an atmosphere of paranoia in which anyone who dared to challenge or criticise the policies of the leadership — invariably not the infiltrators — would be labelled an anarchist, an agent or a counter revolutionary.

This reinforced the concept that there was “only one true way forward”, a concept promoted by the SA Communist Party (SACP) that saw itself establishing an SACP-led socialism after first helping to institute a black (ANC) republic. This remains the dominant underlying dogma.

However, there have been times when reality finally made it impossible to persist with even the most dearly held beliefs. But adapting to reality has seldom meant admitting errors; new myths worryingly make way for old, but usually only after lengthy denials.

So it is that the ANC, SACP and Cosatu continue to deny that any crisis exists. Yet all are aware that a major research project, scheduled for release on August 29, apparently reveals that the majority of Cosatu shop stewards favour an independent “labour party”.

This report seems to highlight widespread disgruntlement with the status quo in the labour and political environments. The greatest evidence of this came with the upheaval and horrific loss of life at Marikana.

A year on, there was a knee-jerk reaction from the SACP. The party again labelled the newest major labour player in the sector, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) “vigilantes” and, “counter revolutionaries” responsible for “killing workers”.

The fierce reaction of the SACP and, to a lesser degree, the ANC, is perhaps understandable when it is realised that two former NUM general secretaries, Kgalema Motlathe and Gwede Mantashe, now hold, respectively, the positions of deputy president of the country and secretary general of the ANC. The president of NUM, Senzeni Zokwana, also took over the chair of the SACP from Mantashe and the controversial general secretary of the union, Frans Baleni, is an SACP central committee member.

What this means is that the disintegration of NUM affects not only Cosatu but also the SACP and the ANC. The ruling alliance and the government, therefore, face the same crisis that reverberates throughout the labour movement.

Amcu has clearly benefitted in membership terms from desertions from NUM, but so too has Numsa with former NUM members swelling Numsa’s numbers to a claimed 320 000. However, the labour movement overall has been weakened as many former union members have simply opted out.

And while Amcu has provided the biggest ever membership boost to Nactu, this federation is still struggling. After flirting with Black Consciousness and the also once exiled Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), Nactu opted to be politically non-aligned, but failed to attract any large unions. The present general secretary of Nactu, Narious Moloto, also holds the same position in the PAC, although he insists this temporary and in no way compromises the federation.

Nactu and the bigger second fiddle in the labour federation business, Fedusa have also been trying in recent years, with little success, to launch a united front, the Southern African Confederation of Trade Unions. However, in the process, Fedusa has lost, to independent status, both its largest affiliate, the PSA (formerly the Public Servants Association), and the Independent Municipal and Allied Workers’ Union.

The growing call now is back to basics: back to democratic control, to accountable and recallable union leaders. This would almost certainly mean an end to party political manipulation and to the expense account lifestyles of union bureaucrats.

These are tall orders. But if a start if not soon made, the immediate future for the labour movement and for South Africa’s fledgling democracy could be bleak.