Has South Africa’s Main Trade Union Lost its Path?

Back when Cosatu partnered with the ANC and the South African Communist Party to overthrow the Apartheid regime it could be forgiven for being in league with political parties. Now that one of its old allies is in power, however, has the labour movement lost sight of where its loyalties lie?

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) was formed in 1985 as a federation of several black unions fighting against extreme political opposition from the Apartheid government. As a single organisation that represented and fought for many unions (some of them quite small), it was very powerful and eventually became the second principal anti-Apartheid force operating inside South Africa, alongside the United Democratic Front.

Though birthed as a political force, its unionist roots were also strong. The need to fight for better working conditions for black workers was huge and pressing.

In an article on the recent Marikana shootings, Jon Soske, an assistant professor of modern African history at McGill University, described a 1981 strike at the Penge asbestos mine in what would later become Limpopo: "In July 1981, 1,700 workers at the Penge asbestos mine in the Northwestern Transvaal struck after a bitter, two-year struggle for recognition by the Black Allied Mine and Construction Workers Union.

After four days, the mine owners fired all of the workers, who then responded by occupying the living compounds attached to the mine.

"The company brought in scabs and petitioned the South African supreme court to evict the mineworkers: since the strike was technically illegal, the company claimed that the workers had quit their jobs, and therefore had no right to remain in its quarters. Predictably, the Pretoria court ruled in the mine owner's favour; the company offered to re-employ 1,000 of the striking workers at reduced wages. The strikers refused.

"Given the absence of ventilation and other basic safety measures, most of the workers faced a slow and excruciating death from silicosis if they returned to work. One trade unionist later explained: 'We don't envisage a situation where we would choose to die in order to earn very little. We'd rather starve than sell our lives'," Soske wrote.

The story was the same in factories, mines and farms around the country.

Cosatu's vehicle for achieving basic human and socio-economic rights for workers was through partnership with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The relationship among the three was tangled to the point where several prominent Cosatu members sat on the National Executive Committee of the ANC and on the Central Committee of the SACP. This relationship remains till this day, where the secretary-general of the ANC was only recently replaced as the chairman of the communist party by the president of Cosatu's largest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

When the ANC government went into power in 1994, the foundations for the relationship within the tripartite alliance changed. It was no longer about opposition to Apartheid and installing a popular government, but about advancing rights and rolling back years of inequality and injustice. However, the ANC as government of the day, and Cosatu as a major union federation, were bound to be on a collision course. The clashes began as unions like the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and the South African Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu) took to the streets to demand better wages and better working conditions from their employer, the ANC-led government.

The Mbeki government's Aids policy would also be another area of friction between Cosatu's politics and its duty to protect its workers and members. In February 2002, the federation's president, Willy Madisha called for the government to provide anti-retroviral drugs to the five million South Africans living with HIV/Aids. He said he voted for the ANC thinking it would take care of the most vulnerable members of the society. "The case of people living with HIV is a litmus test of our revolution," he said.

But Cosatu was also never far from playing politics with the ANC. This role became more emphasised as the years went by. The focus turned up even more when Thabo Mbeki sacked Jacob Zuma as deputy president. The union federation was one of Zuma's most reliable allies, and its goal in electing him was to change the economic policies away from Mbeki's more market-friendly economic growth focus to a more state-centred, jobs-focused one. Against sometimes incredible odds, Zuma won, but the big economic shift didn't happen.

Ahead of the ANC's Mangaung elective conference in December, Cosatu now seems undecided about the man it helped put in power. Such is the federation's preoccupation with the ruling party that it has an effect on leadership dynamics within member unions. At its congress in March, NUM took a resolution to support Zuma at the Mangaung congress and rejected wholesale nationalisation as a solution to the country's rampant inequality. Fellow Cosatu member-and NUM rival-National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) then afterwards resolved to remove Zuma and the entire NEC for failing to implement the resolutions of the congress at Polokwane in 2008.

The jostling between the two unions prompted Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi to issue a statement asking all affiliate unions to stop. "We discourage any premature discussion on the succession debate, because it distracts us from the primary political tasks of taking forward our transformation mandate," he said.

Many unions also went corporate, NUM being an extreme example. According to a leaked document obtained by the Mail & Guardian, NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni's total salary package is now more than R100,000 a month. "Confidential documents in possession of the M&G show that Baleni receives a basic salary of R77,000 a month and his total salary package is just more than R105,000 a month. This makes him one of the highest-paid unionists in South Africa," the M&G said.

The Mineworkers Investment Company, wholly owned by NUM, boasted a R2.8-billion portfolio in June 2011. Union fees are also a lucrative business. NUM collected about R209 million from its 310,820 members in 2011, according to the City Press. It also revealed that the MIC may have made some money through deals and ventures with mining houses, even though it has repeatedly said it doesn't invest in the industry it organises in.

As poverty continues to dog South Africa, the unions may now be falling on the wrong side of the inequality equation. Even though living standards are improving thanks to government grants, large chunks of the population still live in dire poverty.

The events preceding the 16 August shootings at the Marikana mine of Lonmin PLC suggest Cosatu's union in the area may be drifting away from the poorest workers. The formation of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) by former NUM members has been a major thorn in the side of NUM. In some mines, NUM represented only 50% of the workers employed, with the others choosing not to be represented at all.

Amcu was able to exploit this gap by recruiting rapidly among these disgruntled workers. Since NUM was the bargaining principle at most of these mines, it was seen to be the one close to the company. Interviews with striking rock drill operators at Wonderkop near Marikana revealed most thought the Cosatu affiliate had become too close to management and didn't represent worker demands well enough anymore. Cosatu has bristled at these allegations.

The affiliated South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) also faces a challenge from the break-away National Transport Allied Workers Union (Natawu), led by former Satawu President Ephraim Mphahlele.

Vavi recently called the splinter unions "the biggest onslaught waged by the bourgeoisie against the living standards of the working class."

"In sectors as vulnerable as mining, transport and cleaning, the real beneficiaries of these divisions are the capitalists who own and control our economy today," he said.

In a press statement, Cosatu blamed the violence at Marikana on inequality, driven by company owners and managers. "The underlying problems which give rise to incidents like those at Marikana are the stark levels of inequality in South Africa and the super-exploitation of workers by ruthless and rapacious employers. Since they discovered diamonds, gold and platinum these greedy companies forced people from all over Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa to go down every day deep in the bowels of the earth and dig out precious stones," the statement said.

"They work in most dangerous conditions in high temperatures, in damp and poorly ventilated areas where rocks fall daily, killing many and condemning others to a life in a wheelchair and the loss of limbs. Some families have never even had the chance to bury their breadwinners, whose bones remain buried underground."

The inequality is indeed stark: Lonmin Chief Financial Officer Alan Ferguson reportedly earns about R10,254,980 a year, while rock-drill operators at that company make about 150 times less than that. In the context of South Africa's stark inequality and poverty, the pittance earned by miners is justifiable cause for anger, but it does not stack favourably with the amount earned by Baleni, the general secretary of the union that supposedly represents them. The gap between union and poor worker is growing as more people join the higher earnings brackets and, ironically, can therefore afford union fees more, which in turn give the union more money.

But Cosatu's biggest problem may just be its endless focus on politics.

If Numsa and NUM are busy fighting over Zuma, who is in the bargaining councils, fighting for the workers against Zuma's government? The state of the labour market in the platinum industry strongly suggests that Cosatu's unions have taken their eye off the ball.

Cosatu's national congress will be in September, and it will give clarity as to what the response to the weaknesses shown up by Lonmin and the splinter unions will be. Unfortunately the initial signs aren't good. The federation is not prepared to blame itself from moving away from the poor, but rather sees the whole thing as a plot orchestrated by capitalists to weaken it. This kind of defensiveness may permanently blind it from the divide that it building.

The divide was best illustrated by a meeting that took place between NUM President Senzeni Zokwana and the miners at Marikana a few days before the shootings took place. Summoned to address the miners his union purports to act on behalf of, Zokwana had to speak to them from the safety of an armoured truck for fear of his own life.

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