New SA labour fed: a new wheel or a retread?

Posted on April 9, 2017


The launch of South Africa’s fourth major labour federation is at last upon us. In just two weeks the inaugural congress of the tentatively named South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) will be held over three days in Boksburg.

When he announced the launch, former Cosatu general secretary and co-ordinator of the new federation, Zwelinzima Vavi, maintained that it would be a “watershed moment” for the labour movement. It could possibly turn out to be so. But at the moment all that is sure, is that this will almost certainly be a major event in South Africa’s trade union history.

Headed by the 350 000-strong National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) and claiming a membership of some 800 000, the grouping has some 20 affiliates, a number of them breakaway factions of unions affiliated to Cosatu. Numsa itself, in controversial circumstances, was expelled from Cosatu.

The launch of this new federation was originally scheduled for March, but was delayed until April 21. The inaugural announcement noted that this “paves the way for the birth of a vibrant, independent, democratic and militant workers’ champion”.

And, with more than a touch of hyperbole, it went on to add that this new federation “will turn the tide against exploitation, mass unemployment, poverty and inequality and take us forward to the total liberation of the working class”. As a trade union movement it could certainly make a contribution to these goals, but, in the final analysis, this is the role of a political movement or party.

Trade unions should be, first and foremost, democratic. This means they should unite workers as workers, irrespective of gender, language, ethnic background, religion or political affiliation, with every worker having equal rights and responsibilities. Unions are the shields for worker rights and comprise a massive reserve army that can, when united, press for political and economic change as well as for better pay and conditions. But they are not, in themselves, the agents of change.

However, the potential power of the labour movement makes it a prime target for influence and even capture by business interests, political parties and ambitious individuals. The main protection trade unions have against such manoeuvrings and manipulation is to be intensely democratic: power must remain with the workers on the shopfloor and not be allowed to gravitate to an often self proclaimed “politically conscious” elite, let alone to political or business puppet masters.

The “total liberation of the working class” implies an egalitarian society, a society without bosses, whether of unions, governments or industry; where all managers or co-ordinators are elected by their constituencies and answerable to, as well as being recallable by, them. In such an environment no-one in elected authority should earn more than the highest paid constituent.

This form of organisation developed to a degree among some of South Africa’s emergent and militant unions of 30 years and more ago. It can — and perhaps should — be applied now. However, given the level of bureaucracy that has developed, and the competition that exists between unions, this is unlikely in the short to medium term.

There is also a lot of baggage, both political and personal, that has been carried forward within the labour movement, especially at a leadership level. Beside Cosatu, the two other major federations, the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) and the Federation of Unions (Fedusa), have for years campaigned for unity on the basis of non party political affiliation. For this purpose, they set up the SA Confederation of Trade Unions (Sacotu) as an apparent “off the shelf” federation for all.

“But they just want us to collapse into their new federation,” a senior Fedusa official noted. It is a view shared within Nactu where the largest affiliate is the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

Underlying such wariness is the claimed bureaucratic nature of Numsa and the fact that the union — the main driver behind the new federation — continues to refer to itself as a “Marxist-Leninist” organisation while still maintaining an apparently lucrative investment company.

These and other arguments are certain to surface in coming months as what promises to be considerable turmoil in the labour movement starts settling down. Will this herald a new era for local trade unionism or will it merely signal the arrival of just another federation in the existing mould, a new wheel or simply a retread? Time alone will tell.