Years of simmering tensions over policy and leadership issues between the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its labour ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) seems lately to have evolved into an open war. A split of the alliance has been regularly and mistakenly predicted over many years. However, recent developments suggest breakup cannot be avoided indefinitely.
In recent weeks, tensions between the two have worsened on a number of fronts, including:
ñ ANC accusation that Cosatu was meddling in its internal leadership election process;
ñ Cosatu asserting that the ANC has become a party of no consequence and risked turning the country into a “basket case;”
ñ Cosatu criticism of government’s handling of, among others, the labour unrest on farms in the Western Cape, promising to put pressure on government to increase farm workers’ pay while its own unions failed to organise and look the interests of farm workers;
ñ Cosatu’s planned national strike and mass action in protest during the first week of December against government’s plans for e-tolling in Gauteng; and
ñ Cosatu’s scathing criticism of alleged attempts to privatise electricity generation and distribution, government’s support for Eskom’s 16% over five years tariff increase application and the state owned utility’s capital financing model.
In recent years strikes have become more militant, frequently accompanied by violence and destruction of property. Public sector strikes, especially by teachers, health workers and municipal workers, also escalated. It caused paralysis in essential and put enormous pressure on state resources, often playing havoc with the national budget.
Root of the problem
The root of the problem is the fact that institutions like trade unions should fulfil an independent role in a healthy national household to check and balance competing interests.
As part of the governing alliance Cosatu has essentially become both player and referee. What is happening between government and Cosatu is, in essence, the result of a classical case for a conflict of interest on both sides.
The ANC in government is constantly in the untenable situation where Cosatu is in an formal political alliance with it, since some of Cosatu's senior members servein senior government positions and in Cabinet. In the economic arena it champions sectional interests where government should ensure a level playing field and above all look after the broad national interest.
In recent times this situation has also come back to haunt Cosatu. The recent wild cat strikes in the both the mining and agriculture sectors illustrated how Cosatu’s often pre-occupation with its political role has cost it workers’ support and influence.
By not concentrating on its core function of representing workers’ interests it has now ended up in a situation where it is losing influence both in government and amongst workers.
The conflict of interests also contributed to the long standing tension between the allies on policy matters. These include:
ñ Inflation targeting;
ñ Monetary policy surrounding the rand;
ñ Nationalisation of mines and the Reserve Bank;
ñ The role of labour brokers;
ñ How state enterprises should be structured; and
ñ Socialism versus private enterprise.
Cosatu has been angered by what it sees as failure by both President Jacob Zuma and the ANC to deliver on the labour federation’s demands as just reward for decades of support. It feels let down by president Zuma, believing it played role in his rise to power.
Equally, Cosatu feels let down by the ANC which it believes frequently relies heavily on its support, organisational ability and influence to overwhelmingly win general and municipal elections.
In short, Cosatu is still waiting for its pay day.
Instead the ANC has recently lashed out at its labour ally. The ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) reprimanded Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini for what it sees as an attempt to influence the ANC’s internal elections coming up at it’s national conference in December at Mangaung.
At a press briefing after the NEC meeting ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe also lashed out at Dlamini, saying his public endorsement of Zuma was “completely unacceptable, rude and is bordering on despising the ANC”.
Coming from Mantashe, it may sound strange. Dlamini, vocally andin a deeply divided Cosatu, supported the re-election of both Zuma and Mantashe. But that may be a sign of just how tense the relationship between the two organisations has become.
After its own national congress and the unopposed re-election of its national leadership despite earlier divisions and signs that elections would be contested, Cosatu said the ANC should follow its example as an exercise in maintaining unity.
It appears that these kinds of prescriptive statements by Cosatu seriously irks ANC leadership. Of this, Mantashe said it was “rude to think that you can take over the ANC and steam ahead and call a press conference and announce on preferences” and that the impression created by Cosatu was that the ANC must be "tailing Cosatu on everything".
Cosatu’s Vavi responded by saying the ANC can learn from Cosatu how to hold a united conference and return its leadership unopposed. Adding insult to injury, Vavi said that the ANC has become a party of no consequence and risked turning the country into a “basket case”.
The two organisations may not quite be on the verge of a breakup just yet but the ANC/Cosatu marriage is clearly in trouble.