Who stands to lose most in SA union fracas

Posted on November 30, 2014


Politically, the biggest potential loser in the ongoing and increasingly bitter fracas within Cosatu and its affiliates is the smallest member of the ANC-led tripartite alliance, the South African Communist Party (SACP). That party’s Medium Term Vision (MTV), described in some party documents as a “ten-year plan” looks close to being in tatters.

This “vision” calls for the creation of “socialism” which the SACP describes as a mixed economy, multi-class ““transitional social system”. It is a goal that can be attained by bringing “all key sites of power and influence” under “working class control”.

However, since the SACP describes itself as THE party of the working class, this implies SACP control. Here the trade union movement is vital. In the the words of the MTV, “building working class power in the workplace is a key dimension”.

The SACP was particularly successful in this: until very recently, almost every member of the Cosatu executive was a party member. The same applied to the leaderships of the biggest unions. Critics maintain that this is an authoritarian, “top-down” approach.

But it has led to much of the tension and backstabbing between Cosatu leaders and amounts, in fact, to an acrimonious divorce between former comrades who once shared the same vision. The dissidents, led by Numsa, argue that the SACP has “gone off track” and been “absorbed into the ANC” to support anti-working class policies.

Loyalist elements within the SACP are understandably outraged, so it is unsurprising that some of the most vitriolic attacks on Numsa have come from unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and the major public sector union, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu).

Frans Baleni, general secretary of NUM, serves on the central committee (CC) of the SACP. His Nehawu counterpart, Fikile Majola, sits on the even more powerful, 11-member SACP poliburo where he serves with Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini and the ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, a former general secretary of NUM.

NUM’s immediate past president, Senzeni Zokwana, who this year moved into parliament as agriculture minister, is the national chairperson of the SACP. He is the latest of a number of leading SACP unionists to have moved into politics at both provincial and national level. Prominent among them is SACP deputy chairperson, Thulas Nxesi, former general secretary of the Democratic Teachers Union and now public works minister.

Since parliament is obviously also a “key site of power and influence” it is not surprising, given the MTV goal, that the SACP is disproportionately represented among ANC MPs. This, according to Numsa general secretary, Irvin Jim, is the party’s reward from the ANC for “delivering” Cosatu to the governing alliance.

A loss of influence, let alone control, over Cosatu would almost certainly mean a severe loss of influence with the ANC, certainly in terms of parliamentary positions. As matters now stand, the SACP general secretary, Blade Nzimande, is higher education minister, while his party deputy serves as deputy public works minister.

Among other SACP CC members in the national parliament are minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe, his trade and industry counterpart Rob Davies and deputy minerals minister Godfrey Oliphant. One of the best known faces of the current parliament, deputy parliamentary speaker Lechesa Tsenoli also serves on the CC along with former communications minister Yunis Carrim and former energy minister Ben Martins.

The targets of the ire of this faction are Cosatu’s beleaguered general secretary, Zwelinizima Vavi, and Irvin Jim. Both, until fairly recently, were members of the SACP.

However, although the squabbles at leadership level have tended to dominate the news, the main driving force behind the turmoil seems to be the widespread demand among rank and file members for a return to democratic control of the unions. This would mean a loss of influence and financial support, especially for the SACP, but might, in the longer term, make for a larger, healthier and more vibrant trade union movement.