On Friday 4 March, the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg ruled in favour of the metal union NUMSA’s and Zwelinzima Vavi’s application for the latter’s suspension as COSATU general secretary to be lifted. Vavi had been illegally suspended as the federation’s General Secretary on 14 August 2013.
On Friday, the judge in Johannesburg declared COSATU’s suspension of its general secretary invalid and set it aside. This means Vavi has now been reinstated into his position as General Secretary of COSATU effective immediately. He subsequently returned to COSATU House on Monday, accompanied by many workers from different unions.
This is a big blow for the right wing faction of COSATU president S’dumo Dlamini, but also for the right wing clique within the Tripartite Alliance (ANC, SACP and COSATU) which was desperate to remove the outspoken Vavi from his position. But what does this development mean for COSATU and for the Alliance? Has anything changed for the labour federation? And what is the way forward?
In August last year Vavi was put on “special leave” by COSATU’s central executive committee pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing relating to his affair with a junior employee of COSATU. The suspension of Vavi in August came after numerous attempts to get rid of him by the right wing of COSATU which is linked to the pro-capitalist wing of the ANC.
The fact that it took more than five months to present Vavi with a charge-sheet and that the charges were immediately leaked to the press (in an attempt to prosecute him in the media), are further proof that the suspension was malicious in nature and had nothing to do with the rights of the colleague or the well- being of COSATU. The real reason for Vavi’s suspension was that he was too critical of the government on issues like corruption and also of the implementation of openly capitalist policies.
Following Vavi’s suspension, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) along with Vavi, lodged an application in the South Gauteng High Court challenging the validity of the suspension.
On Friday, the judge sided with Vavi and acknowleded that COSATU had failed to comply with its constitution while taking the decision. “A vote is prescribed as the manner in which decisions are to be taken … therefore no valid decisions were taken,” he said.
This means all decisions taken that day will be set aside. These include the suspension of Vavi as well as the decision to start an investigation into his conduct linked to the romantic affair with a junior employee which he had admitted.
On the Friday after the judgment, NUMSA’s deputy General Secretary Karl Cloete welcomed the court’s decision and called on the national office bearers of COSATU to resign and to hold a special congress, saying:
“If the COSATU national office bearers are democrats, if they believe in the future of the federation of Elijah Barayi and Jay Naidoo, they would take a conscious decision to step down, resign immediately and convene a COSATU Special National Congress.”
Capitalism in crisis
The crisis of the COSATU is really a reflection of the crisis of South African capitalism which is riddled with deep contradictions. Twenty years after the overthrow of Apartheid South Africa is yet again standing at a cross road.
On the one had a small group of blacks who were mainly part of the liberation movement, have benefited greatly from the new state of things. This is the likes of Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa, who have amassed billions of Rands being on the boards of large mining companies, banks etc. They have climbed these positions due to their key positions within the ANC and the government. These former participants in the liberation movement have now joined ranks with the bourgeoisie far away from the lives of the millions who fought heroically to end apartheid.
For the vast majority of South Africans though the situation has not changed much. Of course we cannot deny that some social concessions have been won by the masses, but these concessions are being undermined by the day. For instance the households with no access to water fell from 36% in 1994 to 4% in 2009. Access to sanitation and electricity also improved over the same period – the former from 50% to 77% and the latter from 51% to 73%. At the same time, however, price hikes and cuts in these utilities have caused some of the biggest protests in the country. The fact is that although many have won access to these basic utilities, many cannot afford them! In 2009 almost 1.3 million households, which account for almost 5 million people, experienced water cut-offs due to non-payment. Today that figure is far higher.
Poverty and unemployment is indeed eating its way into the stomachs of South African workers and youth. Despite the great wealth that lies beneath the soil of South Africa, the country is placed in the top ten most unequal societies in the world according to the Gini coefficient. Almost half the population survives on only 8 percent of national income. On the other side, in 2009, on average, each of the top 20 paid directors in JSE-listed companies earned 1728 times the average income of a South African worker.
South Africa has one of the world’s worst youth unemployment rates. Around 3.6 million people between the ages of 15-29 are without a job. 71% of all unemployed people are between the ages of 15-29.The majority of them are women. The massive youth unemployment is one of the key drivers of the community protest actions that have engulfed the country in the last six months. The severity of the problem is really hammered home when one considers the fact that more people depend on social welfare than the number of people in employment. About a quarter of the population lives on less than $1.25 pr. day.
Life under the present system is proving unbearable for millions of people who risked their lives in the fight against the apartheid regime. In fact if you lightly scratch the surface of the Republic all the old crap is still crawling around. For most black South Africans the apartheid regime is still very much alive. The fact that only around 5 percent of white South Africans are unemployed gives a clear indication of the real situation.
The result has been a sharp rise in the class struggle. Especially since 2004 the South African masses have taken to the streets in an exponentially growing tempo.
The following charts and graphs are from The Service Delivery Protest Barometer of the Community Law Center of the University of the Western Cape. It clearly shows the increase of community protests from 2007 to 2012, just prior to the massacre of mineworkers in Marikana in August 2012. Although data from 2013 are not included, figures from the South African police showed that the upward trend was continuing. As you can see from the chart the growth rate of protests has exceeded 100% for every year in the dataset [as compared to 2007 rates].
In 2013 this trend only continued with major strikes and mass protests on an almost daily basis. Also, since the beginning of this year around 10 people have already been killed in protests as they have clashed with the police.
Cracks in the Alliance
The great class struggles of the past few years has been reflected in enormous tension within the tri-partite alliance. At every strike, protest, branch meeting or congress a sharp dividing line has occured between those who are closer to the state and the bourgeoisie and the working masses.
On the one hand the bourgeoisie who is in control of the ANC and the government are using these tools to defend their priviliges. On the other hand the workers and the poor, who are disgusted by the looting, the corruption and the outright robbery of the Zuma clique.
Twenty years of ANC rule and formal democracy have not changed this situation significantly. On the contrary, today since the beginning of the world economic crisis in 2008 the situation is worsening by the day.
This cannot be reduced merely to bad administration and the technical incompetence of the ANC governments. The root cause of the plight of the workers and poor is the system of capitalism that has reached a historical impasse and is unable to develop society.
Mobilise the Workers
In this struggle Vavi and NUMSA were the entities that gave the clearest expression of the aspirations of the masses. Seen as the ones who stood up for Socialism and the cause of the workers they received massive support from the workers.
Last year NUMSA, who was joined by a series of other unions, published a very radical document where it proclaimed:
“11. Such is the brief political economy context within which we operate. The on-going cyclical crisis of capitalism is embedded in the long-term structural crisis of colonial capitalism in this country. As we have mentioned repeatedly, this long-term structural crisis cannot and will not be resolved unless the basic wealth of our country is transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole through first and foremost, the nationalisation of the mines, banks and other monopoly industries and through an active industrial and trade policy to control other industry to assist in the well-being of the people.
13. We have boldly maintained that at the heart of the crisis in COSATU are two opposing forces: the forces of capitalism and the forces socialism. The capitalist forces within the Federation seek to make workers to understand and tolerate the continuation of white monopoly capitalist domination, by accepting elements of the neoliberal NDP.
The socialist forces seek to mobilise the working class to break the power of white monopoly capitalism through the implementation of the Freedom Charter as historically understood by the working class.
14. It is also within this context that we should understand the recent speeches by senior leaders of the Alliance that are aimed at NUMSA. As we have always maintained, NUMSA is an unashamedly a socialist union, guided by Marxism-Leninism. We are convinced that the recent attacks on NUMSA by senior leaders of the Alliance, in the context where COSATU is in a state of paralysis, cannot be understood outside the on-going conflict between the working class and the capitalist class both within and outside of the Alliance.”
Here NUMSA gives an absolutely correct appraisal of the situation. This line of NUMSA was received with enormous enthusiasm by hundreds of thousands of workers who has joined the union. This is the line that NUMSA, if it chooses to stay within COSATU must now fight to spread to the whole federation and within the Alliance.
Mobilise the masses
After the judgement was passed on Friday the struggle between the two wings of COSATU immediately resurfaced. On a few different occasions since then, unions from both factions have threatened further legal action. The first was when the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), which is part of the left wing, threatened to sue any union which used workers’ subscriptions to appeal against the judgment of the Vavi matter.
Speaking after the ruling, FAWU’s general secretary, Katishi Masemola, warned:
“FAWU will still take legal advice on how to launch a lawsuit to individual leaders of the federation and of supporting affiliated unions should they proceed to make an appeal and take other legally-flawed decisions yet utilising resources of COSATU to defend such steps,” Masemola said.
This was followed by the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), whose leadership is to the right, wanting to “look into the feasibility” of actually appealing against the judgment. Another example was when the nine unions from the left threatened to approach the courts again should COSATU not convene a special congress immediately. The implications are obvious. If the courts are to be used excessively as an arena of battle, then there is a real danger that the whole process could be caught up in a legal minefield which would actually suit the right wing!
The left wing and the allies of NUMSA have the support of the overwhelming majority of workers inside COSATU. This is the great strength of the left. Unfortunately, the unions have refrained from mobilising the workers on the political front, preferring to keep the workers on the industrial front. This was proved two weeks ago when NUMSA held a very successful one day strike against the youth wages subsidy. But instead of carrying this momentum on into political demands, the movement was channeled it into a court case.
In the class struggle it is of course obligatory to use every measure available to further advance the interests of the working class, even by making use of bourgeois institutions such as parliament and the courts. But these methods have their limits and if used incorrectly, can actually work to undermine the interests of the workers. The task of revolutionaries is to raise the class consciousness of the masses by explaining what is. The present situation must be used to spread the ideas which were expressed by NUMSA in its meetings and congresses over the past year. It must be used to mobilise a mass movement to fight the right wing ANC leaders and to fight for the expropriation of the South African bourgeoisie.
NUMSA has enormous political authority amongst ANC supporters. To successfully form a movement for socialism, the union has to mobilise the rank-and-file of the ANC on the political front. As was shown by the removal of Mbeki at the Polokwane conference of the ANC in 2007, the left has the potential, authority and organisational capabilities to mobilise such a movement. Only by using the strength of the workers in the political arena can the organisations of the working class be transformed.
On Tuesday the central executive committee of COSATU held a special meeting that was supposed to discuss the implications of Friday's court judgment. This is was the first time in eight months that Vavi had attended the CEC meeting. It was yet another stormy meeting. The atmosphere had already been poisoned by the leaderships of NEHAWU who once again called for the expulsion of NUMSA from COSATU over the weekend. There was also talk of suspending Vavi again.
However, in a dramatic move, the ANC sent its deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and its deputy secretary general, Jesse Duarte, to intervene in the meeting. The aim was obvious: to temporarily diffuse the situation long enough to limit the damage to the ANC less than a month before the general elections. In the end this seemed to have worked because the CEC decided to postpone all discussions to a date after the elections. But none of the problems have been resolved.
Following the court victory on Friday, the nine unions of the left again called for an emergency special congress of COSATU. This is 100% correct. It is imperative that the workers are able to reclaim their labour federation. One of the founding principles of COSATU is that it should be worker-led and worker-controlled. Only on this firm basis can the mighty trade union confederation be re-built.
An emergency special congress must be organised as soon as possible, to discuss not only the re-election of a new executive but also, more importantly, a socialist programme for South Africa. A programme to mobilise the millions of COSATU members in a struggle against utility cuts, unemployment and lack of housing and for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under the control of the working class. Only by waging an irreconcilable struggle against Capitalism can the problems of the South African masses be solved.
Forward to an emergency congress of COSATU!
Forward to Socialism!