The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) will hold a special national congress to deal with divisions that have ravaged South Africa's largest labour federation for the last period. The announcement came on August 19th after the three day meeting of the Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting that was held in Johannesburg. This was after nine affiliated unions wrote to the CEC, requesting such a congress. This represents a step in the right direction for the federation. COSATU's constitution states that for a special congress to be held, at least one third of affiliates (seven) must make such a request. The president of the federation then has 14 days to deal with the logistics of holding the congress, including setting a date.
The immediate background to this was the suspension of the federation's general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi by the CEC on 14 August after he admitted to having an extramarital affair with a junior colleague. In a previous article we explained that the reason for Vavi's suspension had nothing to do with his personal indiscretions, but rather with the politics and contradictory forces in the Tripartite Alliance (ANC, SACP and COSATU).The decision to suspend Vavi has plunged COSATU into the deepest crisis since its formation. Unions have now lined up against each other, representing right and left wings of the federation. At the time of Vavi's suspension, the General Secretary of the Food and Allied Workers Union, Katishi Masemola warned: “COSATU won't be the same. The first thing is that there is going to be two camps within the federation. Each and every affiliate will be affected by instability of sorts. Unity of each and every affiliate is not guaranteed."
Since then events have proved him right. But the divisions run much deeper than just within COSATU. The origins of the federation's troubles are rooted in the Tripartite Alliance, and reflect the conflict between those who are closer to the government and thus enjoy the “fruits of office” and those who are closer to the shop floor and are much more in touch with workers. The whole campaign to oust Vavi is actually an attempt to silence him because of his outspokenness against corruption, anti-working class policies, and his criticism of the fact that SACP and COSATU leading members joined the ANC government where they implement these policies. The General Secretary of the Metalworkers Union, (NUMSA), Irvin Jim, directly accuses the secretary general of the ANC and the general secretary of the Communist Party of being behind the divisions. Addressing workers at a march in Randburg, Jim said: "Him [Mantashe] and Blade (Nzimande of the SACP) are doing everything to divide COSATU unions".
For their part, Mantashe and Nzimande upped the ante by launching blistering attacks against the pro-Vavi faction. Addressing members of the police officers union (POPCRU), Nzimande even referred to them as the enemy: "If some union leaders think that they are going to take affiliates out of COSATU, then they will find the Communist Party first. Those who are threatening to walk out, they will first have to open this red door. Those who are planning to do so; they are part of the enemy that wants to destroy our revolution. There can be no problem that is bigger than the unity of COSATU." This is quite typical of Nzimande - taking up a defensive position in public while dealing through intrigue behind the scenes. He also defended the fact that SACP leading members are part of the government, saying:"The 'liberal idea'(!!) that the state was inherently bad and constantly had to be criticised had to be resisted. That is why in our universities and in the media, in order to prove that we are truly independent, we must attack the government and the ANC. Then you will get kudos. Most of us here campaigned for this government in 2009.So this is our government, no matter what problems it has. It is our government.”
What revolution is Nzimande talking about when the ANC government is firmly committed to capitalist policies, privatization, tendering, etc.? What revolution is he talking about when prominent ANC leaders sit on the administration boards of the same mining companies that ordinary mine-workers are fighting against and then when mine-workers go on strike, the ANC government responds by sending the police to massacre them? Where is the revolution? The real threat to the unity of the movement is posed by those who have high-jacked it in border to serve the interests of the capitalist class.
It is no surprise that Nzimande takes up such a position. After all he is the Minister of Higher Education. But what Comrade Nzimande fails to understand is that those leaders who criticize the government and its policies only reflect the views of ordinary working class people. These criticisms do not come from the media or the universities, but from the townships, the mines and the factory floor. According to the latest figures of the police, they “managed” more than 12,000 protests in the last 12 months. And according to figures from the Labour Department, the number of strikes taking place all over the country is at a 5-year high.
These protests and strikes are the reasons why some union leaders are criticising the government. It is a reflection of the growing anger that is building up in society and reflects the crushing failure of capitalism in South African society. The people that are protesting and striking are the very people that have voted in this government and also feel that it is "their government." It is capitalism that is the source of these problems and by being in government while it is implementing these capitalist policies, the leaders of the Communist Party are complicit in the suffering of the working people. This is what conditions the criticisms of Ivan Jim and Zwelinzima Vavi, not the attempt to score political points, what comrade Blade refers to as getting "kudos".
What is really at the bottom of this conflict is the accumulated anger of the masses of workers, peasants and the poor, those who carried the brunt of the struggle against apartheid but nearly twenty years later, after two decades of ANC governments accepting the capitalist system, see how their living conditions have not substantially changed. This anger has been expressed in regular general strikes and constant protests in the townships over lack of service delivery. It has expressed itself, albeit in a distorted form, in conflicts and clashes in all the organizations of the mass democratic movement. It led to the removal of Mbeki, identified with the most openly pro-capitalist wing of the ANC, and his replacement by Zuma, in the hope that he was to pursue different policies. Very soon workers realized that Zuma was continuing a capitalist policy.
The fact that Vavi and NUMSA refused to wage a battle against Zuma at the last congress of the ANC only served to encourage the right wing, which had already purged the Young Communist League (YCL) and the ANC Youth League (YL) of critical elements and decided to move against Vavi in an attempt to bring COSATU under control. A lesson must be learnt. It is not possible to fudge the struggle in the name of “maintaining unity” in the abstract.
Campaign for a special congress
Immediately after Vavi's suspension, the left wing of COSATU came out fighting. At the front were the metalworkers of NUMSA. Irvin Jim of NUMSA revealed that over the nine regions its members were "up in arms" about the suspension of Vavi. The campaign had two fronts. The first was to take the labour federation to court alleging that Vavi's suspension was procedurally and substantially flawed. On the other hand, a campaign was launched to call for a special congress of COSATU. The second one was the scenario that the anti-Vavi faction wanted to avoid at all costs because the general secretary is very popular amongst the workers. This campaign was led and supported by the municipal workers union (SAMWU), the Communications Workers Union (CWU), the retail workers (SACCAWU), the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), the football workers union (SAFPU) and NUMSA.
When the constitutional requirements were met and a special congress became inevitable, the ANC formed a special task force led by its deputy president, the former mine workers leader turned billionaire businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, but also including Mantashe and ANC Chairperson Baleka Mbete, to "engage" the federation and find solutions for the divisions. Also, former trade union leaders Sydney Mufamadi, Alec Irvin and Enoch Godongwana, separately tried to fix a deal on behalf of the ruling party leaders. But these attempts immediately backfired. The deputy general secretary of NUMSA, Karl Cloete, told Mr.Mufamadi and Mr.Godongwana in no uncertain terms that they are "starting in the wrong place" and they should start to heal the rift by "turning to their own party". Mr Cloete made it very clear that the intervention by the ANC was not welcome: "It is the ANC that wants a conveyor belt, a toy telephone, a labour desk, that is not critical of anything...they must go to the NEC (of the ANC), it all started there", he told NUMSA's political school in Benoni. Directly criticizing the ANC general secretary, Cloete said:"That is the office that is meant to build unity when there is disunity. That is an office that must give guidance... Unfortunately, we cannot say that today."
It is clear that the right wing miscalculated in its attempts to oust Vavi and make COSATU a compliant lapdog of the ruling right wing capitalist bureaucratic clique. But even as it is forced to hold a special congress, it is not at all attempting to go down without a fight. Already there are rumblings that Vavi might face additional charges for allegedly breaching the terms of his suspension because he addressed striking workers. This is quite in tune with the mindset of a bureaucrat - try to resolve issues behind closed doors in special meetings, behind the backs of workers. There are also fears that the president of COSATU, Dlamini, could come up with delaying tactics in holding the special congress which could lead to a costly court battle.
Forward to the special congress!
In our previous article we wrote:"As was shown by the removal of Mbeki at the Polokwane Congress of the ANC, the left wing is far stronger within all the organisations of the movement, as it represents more faithfully the interests of and views of the masses of workers and the poor who vote and support the ANC." This was shown once again in this case. Within a short space of time the left wing has managed to turn the guns around and they are now facing the anti-Vavi faction. The holding of the special congress is very significant because the workers will now decide the future of the federation. This is the real meaning of “worker-led and worker-controlled” which is the motto on which COSATU was founded. The president of COSATU and other right wingers will now have to face the workers in a direct showdown.
But the mere staging of a congress is not enough. Nothing must be taken for granted, least of all the opinions of workers. A mass campaign must now be launched to win back the federation and bring it back to its revolutionary traditions, to bring back the COSATU that took on the combined might of the Apartheid state and the bourgeois class and forced them to make substantial concessions. A COSATU that will not be a conveyor belt of the ruling party, but an independent and fearless federation that is worker controlled.
The crisis that has now engulfed COSATU is much broader than the personalities that are involved. It is actually a crisis of reformism. It is the price that has to be paid for wanting to manoeuvre within the limits of capitalism and gradually wanting to reform society. But as is showed on a global scale, reforms are impossible. Capitalism is now facing its deepest crisis since the 1930's and probably the most severe crisis in its history in terms of its scope. Nowhere is this better shown than in South African society where poverty, inequality and unemployment have hit society particularly hard.
The only solution to these problems is to fight for socialism. Only by nationalising the commanding heights of the economy under workers control and implementing a wide ranging agrarian reform can we address the problems facing society. The prior condition for this is to fight for such a programme. The struggle for socialism must be put at the centre of the forthcoming COSATU congress. The issues have to be brought out clearly, so that every worker can understand what is at stake. The forces of the left are much stronger than those of the right wing because they represent the genuine interests of the working masses and the poor. There is no objective reason why the task of fighting for a socialist programme cannot be achieved.