Cosatu: the end draws nigh

Posted on April 6, 2015


The fact that Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has refused to accept his dismissal from the federation should have come as no surprise to readers of this blog. This column has pointed out for months now that the central executive committee (CEC) of Cosatu has no constitutional authority to finally dismiss, suspend or expel any office bearer or affiliate; that only a national congress may do that.

Of course, the constitution can be ignored, as it has been for nearly two years by the CEC refusing to call a special national congress to deal with the problems that have resulted in the announced expulsion of metalworkers’ union, Numsa and the sacking of Vavi. But this leaves the way open for a legal challenge.

It is against this background that ANC secretary general, and former National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) general secretary Gwede Mantashe, described the move against Vavi as “reckless”. The ANC is now trying desperately to contain what looks like an inevitable implosion of the federation.

Vavi and Numsa, along with allies such as the Food and Allied Workers’ Union have reacted by stating that the fight continues to “win back Cosatu to workers’ control”. Which, according to the majority on the CEC, is where Cosatu remains; that Vavi and, Numsa are “splitters” out to weaken the labour movement.

However, Vavi and the Cosatu affiliates supporting his position appear, tactically, to have the better of the argument. Mainly because of the unwillingness of the CEC — recently always minus six or seven delegations — to call a special congress, but now also because of the conditions announced following the decision to dismiss Vavi.

Cosatu president, S’dumo Dlamini stated that no Cosatu affiliate or member of any union affiliated to the federation should attend any meeting addressed by Vavi — and, presumably, anyone from Numsa. Also that Vavi should be effectively barred from any Cosatu union facilities.

This statement played into the hands of the CEC dissidents who complain of the CEC’s high-handed and autocratic management style. Vavi summed this up, stating: “Momentous decisions affecting the working class are made in small boardrooms instead of democratically by the members.”

For the federation’s highly respected national spokesperson, Patrick Craven, Dlamini’s instructions were the last straw. He announced his resignation, noting: “I could not defend the indefensible”. Several other senior Cosatu figures are also discussing whether to take a similar step.

However, because the battle is not about one individual or even one expelled affiliate, but rather for the “soul of Cosatu”, disgruntled individuals may be persuaded to remain in position as the fight for a full national congress continues. Such a congress would have to include not only Vavi, but also Numsa.

Dlamini this week said that a special congress would be organised for June, just three months ahead of the scheduled triennial national gathering. This seems questionable since Dlamini last year gave a lack of funding as the excuse for Cosatu not having staged a special congress.

“It’s just talk. They’re not going to have a proper congress,” said a senior Cosatu officer who is contemplating resignation.

This would almost certainly open the way for another costly and time-consuming legal battle that seems weighted against the CEC majority. Especially since Vavi and Numsa are unlikely to follow the example of former Cosatu president Willie Madisha and walk away from the fight to attempt to found a new labour federation.

Madisha did so in 2007 when a hostile CEC, including Vavi, expelled him, basically for not supporting Jacob Zuma as ANC president. He subsequently joined the Congress of the People and now holds one of COPE’s three parliamentary seats.

So the slow-motion disintegration of Cosatu seems likely to continue, whatever the efforts of the ANC, the decisions of the courts or the votes at whatever national congress is finally staged. After 30 years of sporadic squabbling about party politics, bureaucracy and worker independence, it now appears that an end of some kind is nigh.