Party politics dominates Cosatu crisis

Posted on December 5, 2013


Fudging and delay. That was what emerged from yesterday’s eagerly awaited Cosatu press conference. As a result, the questions about the future of suspended general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and the prospect of a Special National Congress (SNC) remained unanswered.

And it soon became obvious, as the conference progressed, that the reason for the fudging and delay was the impending general election scheduled for April or May next year. Shortly after the Cosatu Central Executive Committee (CEC) concluded its three-day meeting on Wednesday a senior Cosatu official noted privately that the majority of union leaders on the CEC had “probably unconstitutionally” blocked the SNC demand.

They were insisting on a delay until after the elections next year. “They don’t want an SNC before the elections when some of them hope to be MPs,” he said.

In fact, three of the current CEC members, Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini, National Union of Mineworkers president Senzeni Zokwana and National Education Health and Allied Workers Union general secretary, Fikile — “Slovo” — Majola are tipped for the ANC national list.

All three are also senior members of the SA Communist Party. Zokwana took over as party chairperson from current ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe while Dlamini and Majola serve on the SACP central committee.

There was no mention of this at the press conference, but plenty of promotion for the ANC. This was all part of an attempt to project a “business as usual” image while explaining what could best be described as bureaucratic manoeuvring by the CEC.

The media was also — again — admonished for not understanding the “complexities” of the issues that the CEC had to deal with. However the Cosatu constitution is quite clear on the issue of an SNC.

The constitution states that the president must call an SNC if “not less than one third of the affiliates” submits such a request. Nine of Cosatu’s 19 affiliates, led by the federation’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) — clearly more than one third of the membership — made such a call.

Once such a call has been received, the president must give “not less than 14 days written notice” to affiliates of the SNC. An agenda must also “be attached” to the notice.

As a result, Dlamini and the CEC majority maintained that, because the nine unions had not put forward an agenda, there could be no call for an SNC. According to one participant, the CEC majority vetoed drawing up an agenda.

There were also arguments about funding and the “Cosatu calendar”. The CEC majority maintained that there was no funding for a special conference and that it had become policy to adhere to certain dates for specific events.

The majority felt that September next year, when a special congress was scheduled, should be adequate. However, as Dlamini told the press conference, various contentious matters raised could come before the next CEC meeting in February.

But the oppositionists see the SNC as a matter of urgency. They point out that the Cosatu constitution does not feature any calendar limitation on the constitutional right to call an SNC nor set any date for such a meeting. Affiliates such as Numsa have also already agreed to finance such a “workers’ parliament”.

However, for the time being, the arguments are over. The bureaucratic majority has now put the SNC issue on the back burner — and the bitter infighting in South Africa’s major labour federation continues.

Yesterday Numsa, supported by the likes of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union and the SA Municipal Workers’ Union were still arguing about whether to take the matter to court. But this course is also time consuming.

With the elections drawing closer, there are also bound to be often contradictory professions of unity and common purpose from various sections of the federation. But these will probably fail to disguise the fact that a new, trade union-based political structure is now very much on the cards.

However, such a “workers’ party”, if it ever it is established, will be unlikely to emerge before the elections, despite some champing on the political bit by a number of leading labour activists. It seems that political counsel was sought and it was recommended that no such move should be contemplated before the local government poll in 2016. This would give the union-based groups that hope to take this plunge time for consolidation and campaigning.

But there is also the possibility of a major changing of the guard after the elections next year when an SNC will probably be called. This could see Vavi returned as general secretary, but only if there is a grassroots rebellion across the unions in the federation.

However, such a rebellion seems just as unlikely as the present Cosatu leadership agreeing to reinstate Vavi, whose suspension triggered the ongoing upheaval. But pulling back from the brink of rupture has become something of a habit with Cosatu over the years.

However, with the federation now in opposition to at least parts of the government’s premier economic initiative, the National Development Plan, and wholly opposed to policies regarding labour brokers, e-tolling and a youth age subsidy, rallying the faithful has become that much more difficult. It is also true that an SNC cannot be avoided, even if it can be delayed for many months.

In the meantime, the decidedly intemperate language currently being used by some of the participants will also almost certainly be ratcheted up. There are also a number of bureaucratic manoeuvres available to the majority on the CEC should they wish to avoid an electoral confrontation at an SNC — and provided their majority remains intact.

But the majority is clearly concerned about the prospect of a split and a the emergence of a new political formation. As a result, Dlamini yesterday fired a shot across the bows of what are still spectres of a political and trade union future. He warned that there was effectively no life outside of Cosatu and the ANC.

History will have to be the judge.