You’d think for its historical robustness, organised labour in South Africa, particularly Cosatu, would be preoccupied with bettering working conditions, ramping up the fight for living wages or negotiating for reselling of retrenched workers.
One wonders how they can remain blind to the past ten years’ decline in the union membership. One would have thought that common sense would lead unions to return to the basics by championing and protecting workers’ interests.
This is said, while recognising the difference unions can make in the broader political economy given labour’s ability to wield influence on economic and political levers alike.
Yet this weekend a City Press article alleged that Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini’ accepted a payment for apparently helping to facilitate a meeting that resulted in the president Jacob Zumba retaining Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana in his Cabinet post the 2016 local government elections. If true this points to a union leader whose intentions are not altruistic.
In recent times Dlamini’s reputation has taken a knock. This followed the unpopular expulsion of Numsa and his support for former president Jacob Zuma. Allegations that he received a R300 000 bribe, which is now part of the Hawks investigation into Zuma, could be his undoing. I cannot see how he will dance, sing or spin his way out of this one.
What afflicts Dlamini also afflicts Cosatu. There is, after all, an intricate link between his personal troubles (being accused of accepting bribery) and the outside issue he has no control over – the Hawks investigation of Zuma.
I wonder therefore, if Cosatu finds itself stuck in the middle of what American socialist C Wright Mills called personal troubles and public issues. Public issues in the sense that allegations of corruption, greed and pursuit of money are seen as culture within the arena of world politics. The tripartite alliance is no exception. And personal troubles in that leaders and politicians are individuals who can be corrupted, who are driven by money and greed, are immoral and easily bribed, and use their positions to accumulate wealth and advance self-interest.
This is as much a problem for Dlamini as it is for Cosatu. There is no doubt that these allegations will ‘bring the federation into disrepute’. Was it not the case that personal troubles were among the charges (that brief encounter with subordinate female staff) that undid Zwelinzima Vavi’s reign and saw him facing disciplinary action? And it’s public knowledge that some of its affiliated unions are embroiled in factional battles, poorly-managing investment arms, irregularities involving workers’ money and weakened structures. The current leadership nationality crisis in Satawu being the most prominent.
It would be wrong to simply dismiss the fresh allegations as part of a smear campaign, at least on the part of Cosatu. South Africa’s political culture, especially within the tripartite alliance, has the uncanny ability to quickly move on from matters that should be attended to.
It should be no surprise, then, that Cosatu’s governance institutions have failed or are failing to uphold their rules and laws. That gap has been quickly filled by cunning individuals who are emboldened into committing acts that bring leaders into disrepute within the organisation because they know there’s nothing or no one to hold them accountable.
This is not just a Cosatu problem, it runs throughout the tripartite alliance, in fact it is a global issue. When organisational institutions that are meant to enforce laws and norms fail, new informal laws and norms take over. This is neither the first time, nor will it be the last time a union leader is accused of being on the wrong side of the law while they’re supposed to be representing workers.
However, Cosatu that has always been loud about public and private sector, individual and organisation corruption, and supported a president of their alliance partner who made cleaning up, accountability and new dawn his theme. Inaction on their part amounts to failing to do what’s good for the workers – not that they have done so recently. The last ten years have shown us while its leaders have been up to something, putting workers’ interests first hasn’t been on the agenda.