The labour scene in South Africa finds itself increasingly in a state of turmoil. While labour unions and others are trying to come to terms with the tragic deaths of 44 people at Marikana, the final buildup to the national congress of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), in a week’s time, is turning into a “mini-Mangaung”. The current state of domestic political and labour affairs is very unstable.
What is presently happening in South Africa is not much different from the trajectory of developments in other post-liberation African countries where political and labour movements soon parted ways. Quoting the findings of Wits University sociology professor Edward Webster and using Tanzania as example, this observation is made by the Dar es Salaam correspondent of The Citizen, Mulemwa Mulemwa.
Mulemwa writes that in many countries trade unions were relegated to a minor role by the nationalist political parties once the common goal of independence (or liberation) had been achieved.
“Complex relations between trade unions and political parties ensued after independence. Professor Webster describes four of them as a client mode relationship, unhappy marriage, divorce and abstinence,” writes Mulemwa.
He cites the tense relations that developed between labour and the post-independence governments as government responses failed to match worker demands. Similar to what is happening in South Africa, Mulemwa mentions the impact of this on service delivery, including strikes and protests by Tanzania’s medical doctors and teachers.
Other countries where the post-liberation divorce between labour and the dominant national political organisation has been strongly experienced are Zambia and Zimbabwe. In both the initial new labour-based political formations challenged governments and erstwhile alliance partners.
South African replay
Although complex, and often expressed in seemingly unrelated developments, many of the symptoms of the shifting dynamics in the relationship between labour and ruling party is now also emerging in the relationship between the ANC and Cosatu.
It is evident – once one probes a little deeper - in many current labour-political developments in South Africa, such as the Marikana tragedy.
The nature of this relationship is also evident from the fact that Cosatu’s 11th Congress, taking place from 17-20 September, is being labelled a “mini-Mangaung”, the inference being that Cosatu is junior to the ANC which holds its own national conference at Manguang in December.
Past internal political wrestling in the Alliance has already seen Cosatu challenging the ANC over its assertion that it is the leading force or political centre of the Alliance.
While Cosatu continues to demand realisation of its social agenda the ANC is increasingly excluding Cosatu from its political agenda.
But with fierce factional, policy and leadership battles being waged in both organisations, factions from within both are leaning upon each other for support.
Ironically Cosatu is numerically – and perhaps financially – superior to the ANC, having double the ANC’s one million paid-up members. Therefore is own upcoming conference can hardly be viewed as a junior or “mini” event to the ANC’s national conference.
Against this background the two serving leaders of the ANC and of Cosatu – the ANC’s President Jacob Zuma and Cosatu’s General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi – are indirectly pitted against other, each aiming for re-election.
But while the two organisations have become so deeply embroiled in each other’s internal politics and are in competition with each other, Cosatu is seen as forsaking its shop floor responsibilities in favour of a role in national politics.
This has opened up space for other formations to exploit growing worker resentment aimed at gaining a foothold in both the labour and political spheres.
Among these are Julius Malema’s Friends of the Youth League, so-called independent labour unions such as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which was prominent at Marikana, and committees and self-styled leaders active in informal settlements.
Some of these developments are reflected in an extract from the Draft Organisational Report to COSATU's congress next week.
Setting itself a membership growth target in 2003 of 4 million members by 2015, Cosatu has added just over 200 000 new members to reach a total of 2.2-million, far short from the target it set itself.
Much of this failure can probably be attributed to the effects of the global economic crisis over the past few years with its job losses. But Cosatu is also affected by the ANC government’s failure to achieve meaningful job creation.
The report also quotes Statistics SA in showing that only 32% of the country’s work force is unionised reflecting Cosatu’s failure to make serious inroads over the past decade into non-unionised labour territory.
The report also reflects that recruitment drives by rival labour unions were most intense in sectors with the biggest growth potential. Mining is one, with specific relevance to events at Marikana.
Other sectors targeted in recruitment drives include the chemicals and fuel sector, construction, education, security, metal and engineering, retail, transport and public sectors. These also happen to be the sectors in which some of the biggest, most destabilising, and most violent strikes have taken place in recent years.
From the wide variety of statements and opinions offered by Cosatu and its leaders following the Marikana tragedy, it is clear that itself still has no clear picture of what caused the tragedy. Most probably a variety of factors, including union rivalry, played some part, with various factors feeding off one another.
Among the many possible reasons put forward by Cosatu leaders are:
• Inter-union recruitment rivalry and the poaching of members from Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) by the independent Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu);
• The “ticking time bomb” of high unemployment and poverty, especially youth unemployment;
• The alleged divisive tactics and greed of mine management and/or employers in general;
• Ongoing racial inequality and racism in South Africa manifesting itself in the disparities in wealth and privileges;
• Forces that are out to divide and destroy Cosatu, and want to reverse the gains made by the labour union movement over the past few decades;
• Forces intent on dividing and destroying the political alliance between Cosatu, the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP); and
• Issue-driven political committees and warlords that are active in informal settlements around the country.
But as the stakes rise in Alliance politics, with Cosatu’s elective conference just around the corner, the fedration and its leaders are not likely to highlight any of these in case it impacts on the election chances of various candidates.