South Africa: Cosatu protests, but workers turn anger against right wing faction

Thousands of workers, poor people and trade unionists marched from 12-14 November in cities and towns across South Africa against the implementation of anti-worker laws and counter-reforms that have created outrage across the country. The national days of action were called by the trade union federation Cosatu against the implementation of the e-toll system, labour-brokering and the youth wage system.

The Gauteng region of Cosatu kicked off the protests a week prior to the rest of the country with a series of slow-drive protests on the province's usually bustling freeways to protest against the multi-billion rand e-toll project. On Friday, 9 November these slow-drive campaigns targeted busy M1, N1, and M2 highways in Johannesburg. On Tuesday, the 12th the campaigns were held on the N3, R24 and the R21 roads in Ekurhuleni. Slow-drives involve driving at speeds well below the legally permitted levels, with the effect of backing up the flow of traffic. The Gauteng regional secretary of Cosatu, Dumisani Dakile, said that these campaigns had irritated and inconvenienced government officials.

Protests, marches and pickets were held on in different provinces  on consecutive days. On Tuesday, 12 November the protest actions were held in the three coastal provinces of Kwazulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and the Western Cape. In Kwazulu -Natal protests were held in Durban, Newcastle, Ulundi, and Mandini. In the Western Cape pickets were held in Salt River, Bellville, at the Cape Town Legislature in Wale Street, in Epping and Montegue Gardens.On the next day, protests were held in Klerksdorp and Rustenburg  the North West Province. A slow-drive campaign was also organised to the Swartruggens toll gate, which is the most expensive tollgate in the country. Protests were also organised in the Northern Cape Province and Free State province.

On the third day, the 14th, campaigns were held in Emalashleni and Mbombela in the Mpumalanga province. In the Limpopo province protests were held in Polokwane , and the protests were concluded in Johannesburg with a march from Cosatu House to the offices of the Department of labour to protest against labour brokers. From there the marches proceeded to the Department of Transport to protest against the e-toll system. The protests then concluded at the iconic Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown which is where striking workers had congregated throughout the 20th century.

The three laws that permit the e-tolls system, labour broukers and youth wage subsidies are extremely unpopular with workers throughout the country . But despite this, the government has stubbornly forged ahead with their implementation. In fact, these laws are being introduced in quick succession with the e-toll system due to be rolled out in December and the bill that allows for youth wage subsidies to be implemented in early 2014. The bill that allows for labour brokering has already been signed into law by the president. These measures are in fact some of the most brutal counter-reforms the working class have faced for the last two decades.

Normally when Cosatu embark on such mass actions the country and the economy  are seriously affected. Hundreds of thousands of workers usually take part, which often bring the country to a halt.  Big cities like Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town usually come to a standstill. It is not uncommon to see 60-70 000 people protesting in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

This was not the case this time around. The economy was not disrupted at all and the media, which is usually very hostile to strikes and protests, hardly paid it any attention to it.This was not because the workers do not support the aims of the protest. On the contrary, these laws are extremely unpopular. Rather, it has everything to do with the crisis that is raging within Cosatu itself. We have reported on the reasons for the crisis in Cosatu in previous articles.

The run-up to these protests were characterized by workers turning their anger against the right wing faction of the labour federation. On a number of occasions the workers expressed their anger  against the leaders of this faction whom they see as being responsible for Cosatu's problems. On 6 November, a Cosatu shop-stewards council meeting in East-London  degenerated into chaos. Angry workers booed members of the Tripartite Alliance, who are aligned to this group, and demanded that the suspended Cosatu general secretary be reinstated. 

Earlier, the union federation in the Eastern Cape province , where East-London is situated, resolved for Vavi's suspension to be lifted and that a special congress must be arranged . First in the firing line was Xolile Nqatha, the Eastern Cape secretary of the South African Communist Party , who was booed after he criticised members who sang songs that favoured certain leaders. This was clearly in reference to members who support Vavi. 

National Union Of Mine-workers president, Senzeni Zokwana, was also criticised. He is a close ally of Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini, the man accused of spearheading the campaign to kick Vavi out of Cosatu. Zokwana was not there as NUM president , but rather as a member of the National Executive Committee of the ruling ANC , who are responsible for the implementation of the anti-worker policies of e-tolls, youth wage subsidies and labour brokers. When he started speaking on e-tolls and labour brokers, the delegates booed him and sang him into silence. The shop-stewards clearly identified his hypocrisy of being a trade union leader but also a member of the NEC of the ANC who have adopted these anti-worker policies.

The shop-stewards started singing  "We don't want the capitalist agenda, they killed Chris Hani." Zokwana tried to resist by standing his ground but this only inflamed the situation because the delegates then started to charge the floor. Zokwana was forced to leave and booed off the stage. The delegates then started to sing :  "this is our Vavi, we will take him by hand and take him to Cosatu."  

In Kwazulu-Natal , the metal-workers union Numsa did not join the protests. Numsa regional secretary, Mbuso Ngubeni , correctly said that there was not sufficient time given for the protests.  He rightly pointed out that mass protest action and strike action should be done properly and that in some instances the unions had only 6 days to prepare. He used the same words that we did in our previous article in saying:  "Numsa members do not need to be treated like water taps that you just turn on and off at any time. " Ngubeni said that the regional leadership has passed a vote of no confidence in the Cosatu leadership and that only the forthcoming special congress would be able to vote in a new leadership that would lead the federation forward. The union in the province had a pretty blunt warning for Cosatu president, Dlamini: " Our advice to the current Cosatu president is that he must pack his bags and go, since he is failing to unite Cosatu and the leadership ".

In the Western Cape province the mass action was a series of pickets , mostly in Cape Town. Hundreds of Cosatu-affiliated members turned out to voice their dissatisfaction.  At one such picket the Western Cape secretary of Cosatu, Toni Ehrenreich , had very strong words for the ruling  ANC.  He said that , "there are certainly areas in the policy direction of the government that will have an impact on workers' willingness to vote for the ANC. This is why these protests must send a clear signal to government to re-look at policies if they want workers to support the ANC in the upcoming elections. "

The protests culminated in Johannesburg on the 14 of November with a march from Cosatu House to various government departments. Here too the mood was very much against the right-wing faction of the federation. Here the president of Cosatu came face to face with the rank and file and the anger towards him was made very clear . When the protesters reached the steps of the labour department offices, the president of Cosatu, Dlamini, was announced to the crowd and he was immediately booed by the protesters. 

This was repeated moments later when the march reached the Gauteng provincial parliament with protesters chanting:  "What did Vavi do? Sidumo answer us. Another group began to sing, " Shoot Sidumo”. This was sang all along the route as the workers expressed their anger at the representatives of the right-wing Tripartite Alliance.

The question now is : what is next for in store of the labour federation?

In the week following these events the Central Executive Committee of Cosatu will hold a meeting that could decide the future of the federation. Dlamini had earlier written to the nine unions who requested the conveining of a special congress to confirm that such a congress would be held. However , he is yet to confirm a date. In the last couple of weeks he has sought to wrangle his way out of the congress by stating that the federation does not have a budget for an extraordinary congress. However, as a Numsa regional secretary pointed out, that Cosatu does not pay for travelling of affiliates and accommodations. These are paid for by the affiliates themselves. If the president of Cosatu fails to announce a date for the convening of a special congress , then the situation could drastically get worse.

However, all eyes are now on Numsa's own special congress to be held from 13-16 December in Ekhuruleni. The country's biggest labour federation will discuss the divisions within Cosatu, the state of the Tripartite Alliance (Anc, Sacp and Cosatu)  and the approach it will take to next year's elections. Additionally, the union is will discuss its own strike against the socio-economic problems plaguing South African society. 

The forthcoming Numsa congress will point the way forward for the left-wing inside Cosatu and all other mass organisations. The crisis of capitalism is wreaking havoc in South African society. The masses of working people are determined to fight. There are thousands of community protests every year all across the country. The number of strikes is at a 5-year high. The workers are on the move. But in order for them to fight effectively, they need a strong organisation with a determined leadership and a programme that will unite the entire working class. Such a programme can only be provided by Marxism.