One element lacking in the current debates about what is going on in Cosatu is any sense of recent history. Because there is nothing really new in the current spate of political bloodletting, in the bitterness and the backstabbing.
The rationale behind the suspension of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and the resignation this week of Numsa president Cedric Gina both bear echoes of the recent past. And while Vavi insists that great ideological and political principles are at stake, these battles are being fought largely by the labour and political elite.
The simplistic, over-riding idea, elevated to the level of principle, is that those who are not for us are against us. There is no room for nuance or shades of opinion, no consideration of the possibility of a tactical difference aimed at the same strategic goal.
For or against: it is a brutally simplistic slogan. But that is the beginning and end if it, no matter how often the direction changes, no matter how many ideological flips and flops are ordered.
This attitude is usually attributed to the communist parties who followed the Soviet line, but it is one that applies across the board within any bureaucratic organisation. It applies particularly to groups that consider they are in a battle for survival or dominance, usually for the proclaimed good of all.
So it is with the current upheavals affecting Cosatu and, by extension, the governing tripartite alliance. The main loser appears to be the SA Communist Party (SACP) that, until recently, had apparently loyal members at the helm of most of the large Cosatu unions and the Cosatu executive.
Leading party members such as Blade Nzimande, Thulas Nxesi, Jeff Radebe, Rob Davies and Ben Martins are also ministers in the ANC government promoting policies that are opposed, especially by Cosatu, but also by the SACP. This is illustrative of the SACP’s medium term vision based on the notion that the ANC is a “terrain of struggle” where the SACP and its views will eventually triumph.
Over the years — and certainly since 1996 when the combined labour movement put forward an interventionist macro-economic policy — there have been nay-sayers. And they have been purged and ostracised, often with little public notice.
But there have been prominent cases, especially in the wake of the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007 that saw the effective coup against President Thabo Mbeki. He was swept aside as head of both party and government by what Vavi dubbed “the unstoppable Zuma Tsunami”.
The then Cosatu president, Willie Madisha, did not support either Jacob Zuma, or Mbeki. So, like Vavi at the 2012 Cosatu congress, Madisha was slated to be dumped in 2006. Again, like Vavi, he survived the congress vote — ironically in his case, because of the support of Numsa delegates — but, in the words of a senior Cosatu official, he was “fixed at the CEC” (Central Executive Committee).
Madisha’s demise was facilitated by the fact that he admitted to receiving — in a black plastic rubbish bag — a R500 000 donation that he admitted handing over SACP general secretary Nzimande. But there was no record of the money in the SACP accounts and Nzimande denied receiving it.
Amid accusations and counter accusations, including affidavits supporting Madisha’s version of events, the Cosatu president was axed, both from the federation and his union. He was also expelled from the SACP where he had been a central committee member.
In Vavi’s case, he assisted his own suspension by having “an improper relationship” with a junior employee. But he is also accused of financial impropriety and in the hiring of the employee .
The difference between 2008 and now is that there appears to be a much greater groundswell of opposition to government policies and, by extension, to the SACP notion of “creating working class hegemony” in all “sites of power”. This is manifest in a recent survey that revealed that two-thirds of Cosatu shop stewards would support a “worker party” if one existed.
Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim and his executive seem to have keyed in to this sentiment, while Gina clearly did not. And he was probably on a hiding to nothing in trying to appeal over the heads of his executive to the membership, something he did with his letter of resignation.
Using this tactic, Vavi successfully survived the attempt to oust him at last year’s Cosatu congress, in the process winning a majority of grassroots support. In Gina’s case, he faced the prospect of attending the Numsa special congress next month simply to be humiliated by being dumped.
But that would have been lesser humiliation than that faced by Numsa’s founding general secretary, Moses Mayekiso. At the Numsa 2008 conference, where Irvin Jim unseated the Mbeki-supporting Silumko Nondwangu, Mayekiso was honoured and it was announced that the union’s new conference centre in Johannesburg had been named after him.
But Mayekiso was also not happy with Zuma, nor with the trajectory of the ANC. So when former Cosatu general secretary and ANC Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa called for a “national conference” of citizen to discuss and decide on the way forward for South Africa, Mayekiso attended — and was immediately cast out by Numsa, his name removed from the conference building.
However, this putative democratic citizen’s parliament was cancelled when thousands of citizens from around the country swamped the venue. They went home, their voices unheard.
Another conference of selected delegates was called and the hope of true people’s power morphed into another political party, the Congress of the People that provided a home for political outcasts such as Madisha and Mayekiso. And then, in a few short years, it too descended into backstabbing and bitterness.
Given this history, it is little wonder that so many disillusioned trade unionists and social activists wish a plague on all political houses. A better attitude might perhaps be to build better houses, based on the principled designs provided by the Bill of Rights and the Cosatu constitution.