Labour’s loyalty: a democratic failure

Posted on April 27, 2014


The ongoing and increasingly bitter row within South Africa’s major trade union federation, Cosatu, is, effectively, a constitutional clash. It also raises the spectre of real, grassroots democracy that could provide a serious wake-up call to union bureaucrats across the board. But it should also convey lessons for all citizens as South Africa heads toward another election on May 7.

This is because the Cosatu constitution is based on the principle of egalitarianism and democratic worker control. And its clauses are drafted in a way that tries to ensure that democratic control is maintained. So even those union leaders who have aligned themselves with the demand to adhere to the constitution could find themselves under pressure, their relatively privileged lifestyles and positions under threat.

Not so politicians at both national and provincial level. While the country’s Bill of Rights is just as egalitarian in principle as the Cosatu constitution, the political party list system allows voters to sign away their power every five years to party bosses. Unlike the Cosatu constitution, there is no provision to allow for the recall of politicians, even a replacement of ministers if enough of the citizenry are concerned about the way things are going.

And there is widespread concern across the board about the ways things are going. One manifestation was the launch last week of the SV — Sidikiwe (We are fed Up) Vukani (Wake up) — campaign calling for every disgruntled voter to turn out on May 7. The call is to either vote tactically for a minority party or, rather than abstain — and as a last resort — spoil the ballot by writing NO across it.

Launched by former ANC minister Ronnie Kasrils and former deputy minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, the campaign comes in the wake of the decision by the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) to severe connections with the governing tripartite alliance while remaining part of Cosatu. However, although Kasrils addressed an enthusiastic meeting of Numsa shop stewards about the campaign, there is no organic connection between the two.

The decision by Numsa — the largest trade union in the cuntry — to cease giving unconditional political and financial support to the alliance comprising the governing ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) was the first major sign that the traditionally loyal base of the alliance may be fragmenting. It followed expressed outrage at the 2012 massacre of 34 striking miners at Marikana and the controversial “security upgrades” to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla estate.

The Cosatu executive, however, remains wholly supportive of the alliance and the ANC in the coming election, although it is also committed to oppose a range of government policies. These include e-tolling, the effective youth wage subsidy and the much lauded National Development Plan.

To the puzzlement of many commentators, this contradictory position covering a range of policies and the entire macro-economic orientation of the ANC and government has persisted for much of the past 20 years. It was a case of “our party, right or wrong”; the demand for loyalty on the grounds that, on balance, the ANC and its alliance comprised the only progressive way ahead.

This sort of reasoning runs contrary to the often intensely democratic ideals that gave rise, more than 30 years ago, to the modern South African trade union movement. Then, democratic control was sometimes manifest in union leaders being not only answerable to, but recallable by, their members; a time when even a general secretary of a union such as the Metal & Allied Workers was paid no more than the highest paid union member.

Something of this spirit remained in the formulation of the Cosatu constitution. But a constitution, whether it be for a union, a bowling club or a country, is only a piece of paper — or in the Cosatu case, a 67-page booklet. Unless it is adhered to and upheld, it is practically worthless.

So it was for many years with the Cosatu constitution. As Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has noted, a leadership bureaucracy “grew away” from the membership, a far cry from “worker control”.

Now there is a wider cry for real democratic control. Numsa takes a lead in this with the objective of keeping Cosatu united, but under a different leadership and pursuing different political and economic objectives. General secretary Irvin Jim conceded this week: “The next step will probably be the courts”.

But a court ruling may precipitate the fragmentation of Cosatu. This is one of the prospects that will soon confront the federation, the broader labour movement and the country.

The Sidikiwe-Vukani campaign has added to this by shaking up the politicians and voters, raising questions about blind loyalty and democratic participation. It may seem rather noisy and messy, but perhaps that is the way progress usually happens.