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SA workers must brace for a dark new year

The SACP out of the ANC NEC, into the cold, but where does this leave Cosatu?

In an ideal world, the troubles of last year are supposed to be forgotten and left behind. A new year should be an opportunity to start afresh. As Rainer Maria Rilke (Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist), said, “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been”.

Yet, this January, it seems the left within the Tripartite Alliance is fated to repeat the pattern of last year – unable to influence the political and policy direction of the ANC. As last month showed, the ANC no longer deems it necessary to elect any of the South African Communist Party (SACP) leaders into its powerful decision making body – the National Executive Committee (NEC). We will never know if this rebuff of the SACP has to do with the fallout between its leaders and President Jacob Zuma or if those who voted did not take kindly to their party leaders being told off so frequently and publicly by the SACP. It could be both. What was made clear was that NEC positions to the SACP are not a philanthropic gesture the organisation is entitled to. One can’t help but think that perhaps the ANC is feelings less generous about the NEC positions it doles out, and is ready to close doors. 

However, if the by-elections of Metsimaholo are an indication of what’s to come if the SACP contests elections independently, it could be that they have the potential to become a kingmaker in coalition government.

Even more significant is that while the ANC shunned the communists, it readily and with open arms welcomed Cosatu’s Sdumo Dlamini and Zingiswa Losi into the NEC. If recent history (and by recent – I mean the Zuma ANC presidency era) is anything to go by, these two trade union leaders will soon be heading to government; leaving a vacuum within an already weakened labour federation.

All this will have a profound knock-on effect on the left, which has always assumed it can influence policy direction to favour the working class. First, the little leverage the communists had inside the NEC is gone, while the alliance partnership remains in theory. I doubt both Cosatu and the SACP’s word will in future carry much weight when it comes to the ANC’s decisions on national policy matters.

Second, by swelling up the ranks of the ANC with its leaders, Cosatu has become weakened internally. Point me to any significant programme it has produced in the last ten years. Instead of winning policy battles to the advantage of workers, Cosatu has become synonymous with uneasy compromises (as in case of the national minimum wage – settling for R3 500/month instead of the R4 500 they put forward); half-measures (the small turnout and limited impact of its national strike in September, despite promising to shut down the country) and the union’s declining members since 2015, following the expulsion of Numsa.

Thus, as the new year begins, the left, particularly Cosatu, finds itself faced with its biggest organisational challenge to date. It has the politically weakest leaders in its history, its organisational and worker-focused programmes are ineffective. It is truly a house divided and in disarray. The irony in all of this is how Sdumo Dlamini may be rewarded with a cushy government job, yet it was under his leadership that Cosatu became weakened and almost irrelevant.

To this writer, the most remarkable feature of the Cosatu (and its affiliated trade unions’) decline has been (i) losing its ‘activist’ edge and (ii) its inability to respond to the challenges of globalisation.

These unions are less activist and more bureaucratic. By aligning themselves with the governing ANC they’ve become insiders who have been co-opted into the system they’re supposed to be fighting. The politics of the Tripartite Alliance have seeped through to the bloodline of the federation’s agenda of workers so much that it has diluted, blurred and considerably weakened and crippled the trade union movement.

So significant has been this development that today Cosatu is dominated by public sector unions. No longer focused on social justice, many of its fights have been about leadership positions, factions, control over investment arms and ANC succession battles including dividing themselves around preferred candidates.

In so doing, organised labour has failed to keep an eye on changes in the economy and the impact of globalisation on the labour market. It is not surprising that public perception increasingly views trade unions as impediments to economic growth or reaching developmental goals. 

The movement fails to see that South Africa is affected and impacted by the world economy. If indeed the trade union movement understood the changes wrought by globalisation it would know that a quid pro quo is occasionally a necessary evil. Its leaders would temporarily let go of the ‘social protection’ model they’ve deployed. A simple look at the recent history of France and Germany illustrates my point. By clinging to job protection laws, trade unions have seen companies hire less labour and increase automation and investment in technology that replaces workers. In short, the labour laws have been the main cause of those two countries’ unemployment.

A disconcerting reality for the trade union movement is that to revive itself, leaders must go back to their actual role: as driver of the redistributive agenda and defender of the voiceless poor. But first, it is time they untangle themselves from the alliance partnership – where they remain the biggest loser in it.  So too must the SACP, being overlooked for NEC positions in the ANC is a kick.

In this new year, the left, especially the trade union movement must do some soul searching if they want to remain relevant in the next decade. It is a great pity they have led themselves into this rabbit hole, will they come out from it? One hopes they do. Will they come out wiser? That is entirely up to them.

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A very interesting article! However, I cannot agree with your viewpoint that for “the trade union movement to revive itself, leaders must go back to their actual role: as a driver of the redistributive agenda and defender of the voiceless poor.” Trade unions are there to protect the interest of the workers and their paid-up members. They don’t represent society at large. That is exactly why our trade unions have lost the plot because the can’t decide whether they are political parties or trade unions and they can’t be both. The biggest employer in the country is the Government. Therefore how can COSATU be in such a close partnership with the ANC government? That is a conflict of interest.

Agree with jnrb

However this article fails to mention the writer’s affiliation, qualification or agenda.

While the insights into the union movement are interesting the contention that unions should be fighting the system (i.e. classenemy-think) instead of helping make the system work (and extending employment to the unemployed — “the voiceless poor”, who are NOT union members nor concerns of union bosses) are contentions.

The remarks about the recent ANC Congress elections are interesting: the writer implies that the lack of SACP NEC members was co-ordinated — theoretically each delegate is meant to represent her or his branch. Is the failure of SACP true and does it point to some sort of manipulation?

Noticeably the writer sees globalisation as a threat not an opportunity and overlooks the impact of technology and the “fourth industrial revolution” (the “knowledge economy”) in which unions are less relevant.

It really would not be the moneyweb comment section if the replies were not anti worker and in support of smashing labor resistance to corporate malfeasance and labor exploitation.

Well done chaps.

As with their now seemingly “ex” bedfellows the ANC, any lip-service given to “protecting the poor”, “fighting for rights etc” has long gone out the window in place of personal financial and political gain for the few in charge.

I for one can’t see why the writer wishes for them to revive themselves. If they add no value to the economy, and are in fact an impediment to economic growth, a fact well documented in other countries, then they should be allowed to die off, and allow place for proper policy and growth mechanisms to be put in place that will benefit workers and the economy as a whole.

Sigh, let me be blunt on my thoughts. COSATU (and the workers) have been quite cleverly manipulated by their almost all their leaders who have used the COSATU profile as a vehicle for personal gain, often in the very capitalist sector they so derided and attacked to establish themselves (Jay Naidoo etc etc). It seems they continue to be suckered by their present leaders using the vociferous anti business rhetoric so beloved of their predecessors. But COSATU has wrung wages from government (and by extension the taxpayer) well above those in the private sector so one could say they have succeeded to some extent. My view is that, rather than taking ideologically driven opposing view on all fronts against “capitalism”, unions should rather become stakeholders in individual businesses and participate in their operation; understanding what business failure will mean – at best retrenchment. Maybe like how I understand German business and labour operating.

I regard trade unions as intermediaries (just like labour brokers) who do not add value for their members. From my experience, although employers are not always saints, an employee is much better off forging a relationship with the employer than going via a trade union. Most employers will add value to the interactions and advise and how to improve career prospects. Trade unions never do this. I believe many of our workers are forced into trade union memberships when it is not in their best interests or wanted.

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