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Cosatu: A labouring behemoth finally reaches the crossroads

Yunus Momoniat

The mighty Cosatu once revolutionised the labour scene, but did its transformation into an efficient bureaucracy unwittingly lead to Marikana?

With Cosatu's growth has emerged a new hierarchical structure. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

In his book A Paradox of Victory, sociologist Sakhela Buhlungu says that after Cosatu became the most powerful union federation in South Africa its very success turned it into a bureaucratic machine out of touch with the rank and file. Yet when Buhlungu published his book in 2010, he was the messenger at whom Cosatu shot.

His characterisation of the federation so incensed Cosatu leaders that they vilified him, saying his findings were "outrageous" and academics had to be careful when they put pen to paper. Buhlungu was in effect barred from Cosatu's congresses.

Two years later, a short while after the Marikana massacre, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi repeated the main findings of Bhulungu's book in his secretariat report for the 2012 Cosatu congress.

"Different lifestyles and material realities are creating a leadership that is not fully in tune with what members are facing," he said. "Perceptions in the trade union survey among some workers [are] of growing corruption among union leaders, including the sense that union leaders are being co-opted and selling them out."

It was Cosatu that reorganised the country's labour scene after its launch in 1985. It organised the unions into sectors, streamlined bargaining into a centralised process and enforced a "one industry, one union" policy. It also instituted systems that made the collection of subscriptions more efficient and more or less achieved industrial peace after the turbulence of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cosatu grew to huge proportions, straddling the national scene, and into a bureaucracy – the logic of which dictates that, as an organisation grows, its very nature changes.

Leaders or bosses?
It was these very processes that contributed to the rift between leaders and the rank and file, a situation that would ultimately make Marikana possible.

In August, workers at Marikana embarked on strikes that were deemed illegal. The shop stewards appointed by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) resisted calls for a strike, taking instruction from NUM leaders to adhere to agreements made at bargaining councils. The workers rejected NUM shaft stewards and some had already moved over to the Associated Mining and Construction Union (Amcu).

So how did this come about? As Cosatu grew in the 1990s, a new hierarchical structure emerged. Every union has a general secretary, national organisers, regional secretaries and various functionaries between them and the shop stewards. Accountants are also needed, as are administrative officers. By the time that Marikana hit the news, communication channels between the various tiers were not as effective as they should be.

It would be wrong to imagine that these changes came about as a result of devious leaders pursuing power and riches; indeed, many of the changes were necessary. When there is no hierarchy, the union is slow to react, leadership tends to be chaotic and members do not easily comply with decisions.

Nevertheless, the new union leaders acquire new habits and possessions – cars, houses, wardrobes. After all, one cannot pitch up at meetings with big business looking like shabby white lefties. "There is nothing wrong with change in dress and lifestyle among officials," Gwede Mantashe, then the general secretary of the NUM, revealed in an interview with Buhlungu in 2000.

"You can't expect officials to act as if they are still in the situation of apartheid in the 1980s. I do not believe in the approach of white officials of the past that union officials should show their commitment by dressing shabbily. The union has to create conditions to retain officials, otherwise people will leave."

Mantashe's notions about attire are understandable. White lefties developed a downwardly mobile aesthetic in their pursuit of the struggle, but black South Africans are immediately treated as inferiors if they dress "shabbily". But other changes in the union leadership had more serious consequences.

Until the early 1990s, Cosatu's officials all received the same salaries, but then the affiliates began to turn the general secretary's remuneration into "market-related" salary packages, presumably to "retain leaders".  And shop stewards receive benefits even if their salaries remain the same after they are elected.

In 2009, Vavi's salary was doubled to R500000. More spectacularly, the NUM's Frans Baleni recently secured a R1.4-million annual package. The increases mark the emergence of a new trend in which activist unionists have inexorably given way to career unionists. The majority of Cosatu's current leaders joined the federation after 1992, when political activism ceased to be a requirement for leadership.

The commitment to socialism also wanes as leaders begin to oversee huge funds invested in markets. Labour analyst Terry Bell points out on his website that, with some 300000 members, the NUM collects about R13-million in subscriptions every month. The largest union in the federation, it contributes about R800 000 to Cosatu. These funds are locked away in investments and the idea of a strike fund – probably the original purpose of member dues – is not even mooted in most unions.

Indeed, the NUM, with the Chamber of Mines, has gone the other way, establishing a bank, Ubank, 60% of whose client base consists of mine workers.

Cosatu's leaders, like all South Africans, are caught up in a process of escaping from the poverty apartheid enforced. Everywhere, individuals are grasping at opportunities that lift them out of poverty – and unionists are no exception.

The tripartite alliance provides the unionist with a route to the very top of the social pyramid. Union leaders hobnob with ministers and leaders of industry and when they leave the unions they populate the ranks of government, parastatals, non-governmental organisations and big business.

Stewards shafted
Two days before the Marikana massacre, a man was found dead in the veld near the koppie where miners had been gathering in Marikana. Baleni announced that the man was an NUM shop steward.

The interface between the union leadership and workers is the shop steward – shaft stewards, in the case of mining. They represent the union in the workplace, conveying workers' grievances. If this layer becomes unresponsive to workers, the entire structure fails.

In the mining industry, management sometimes uses shaft stewards as labour brokers, depending on them to recruit new workers. Some stewards have even been known to extract a "fee" from the workers they recruit. A client relation is established instead of an authentic relation between a worker and his representative.

Structurally, the shop stewards, who tend to be relatively better educated than their peers, occupy a position above the workers and they begin to acquire skills that can be used in other capacities. With the growth of Cosatu's affiliates the position becomes a full-time function. The reps fly to conferences and stay in hotel rooms. When the shop steward becomes a permanent official, he escapes the work floor and is often given an office, a telephone, a computer and access to a car pool.

These roles are coveted and re-election to the post becomes a priority; incumbents patronise their base to ensure their re-election. An effective steward is a worthy candidate for promotion as well, often to human resource departments. In the early 1990s hundreds of shop stewards were promoted to supervisory and lower management positions, a process that continues today.

But it is not just the shop steward "efficiencies" that have generated the logic of estrangement between leaders and the rank and file. When unions were obliged to raise more money and argue for a hike in members' subscriptions, they were ­compelled to make their case to the workers – and they had to be seen to be doing their jobs. Then the system changed. Dues became a percentage of workers' salaries and the stewards no longer had to consult members. Now subscriptions are automatically paid.

In a paper assessing the post-Marikana environment, Gavin Hartford, black economic empowerment analyst for the Esop Shop, said the most significant change in the mining industry in particular was the collapse of real constituency-based representation of members by shop stewards. They no longer "account directly to membership constituencies", they answer "to leaders higher up in the echelons", which indicates the emergence of a union aristocracy.

Refiguring Cosatu
Cosatu's membership figures have settled just above the two million mark, but the figures are deceptive. Many have left the unions to be replaced by a new breed of workers. And these new workers, says Buhlungu, are more educated, engaged in white-collar work and  able to pay higher subscription rates, but they are unfamiliar with the traditions of anti-apartheid struggle. Workers who joined at the height of the struggle are 20 or so years older now and most have families to take care of.

In 2004, two-thirds of Cosatu's members were older than 36, but a third were from a younger, post-1990 generation. Blue-collar and unskilled workers from mining and manufacturing have declined from 60% in 1994 to about 36% in 2004. The majority of Cosatu members are now from the public sector – teachers, nurses and the police.

The overwhelming reality is that Cosatu is undergoing a transformation in organisational culture with members who are largely white collar and who entered the unions at a time when activism was already in decline. Meanwhile, the precariat – unskilled workers who drift into precarious informal economic activity, domestic and farm workers and school leavers who have failed to find jobs – remains outside union structures.

In a 2012 Cosatu-commissioned survey conducted by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry, analyst Neva Makgetla wrote that unions "remain focused almost exclusively on larger employers that have long had a union presence" and reaching the precariat types "requires innovative approaches to organisation and to services as well as more vigorous recruitment campaigns".

Shock therapy: Marikana
Criticism from various quarters has been levelled at Cosatu, but it took the Marikana massacre to shock it into its existential crisis. Cosatu is engaging in a process of introspection as workers defy it and go on wildcat strikes, threatening institutionalised bargaining processes. But even before Marikana some workers rejected Cosatu's manner of representing them. Marikana is not the first challenge to Cosatu's "one industry, one union" policy, which Amcu is going some way towards dismantling.

All the processes that have altered the nature of Cosatu seem to be magnified in the mining industry. A series of malpractices on the part of mining companies and the NUM led the way to Marikana, from paying low wages and community neglect on the part of the former to rampant shaft stewards and lapses in leadership in the latter.

After 4000 miners were dismissed at Aquarius mines in Kroondal and Marikana in 2009, the NUM began to be perceived as the enemy of the rank and file. A wage agreement concluded with Implats in 2011 saw rock drill operators and those in lower-paid positions lose out, but higher-grade workers got 18% increases. NUM negotiators, all skilled workers, benefited from this arrangement.

When the Lonmin miners went on strike they refused to meet with the NUM, probably because the union opposed unprotected strikes, trying to adhere to a two-year wage agreement that had been concluded in 2011.

The unfolding of the subsequent events will be the subject of research for decades, but what is certain is that the persistence of apartheid-era forms of labour regimes is under the spotlight as never before and the failure of the unions even to begin to dismantle migrant labour, or to secure adequate compensation for its ravages, is one of the reasons the NUM is bleeding members.

What future for unionism?
Cosatu is not the only union federation. It is one of several that straddle the labour scene (the other major ones are the South African Confederation of Trade Unions,  Solidarity and the Confederation of South African Workers' Unions), but it easily dominates the field.

Unions have been in retreat in many countries. In the United Kingdom they reached the peak of their power in the early 1970s, after which prime minister Margaret Thatcher went to considerable lengths to weaken them. In the United States it was Ronald Reagan who accelerated the process of decline – 40% of all workers were union members in the 1950s; today it stands at 12%.

Still, despite the Markana shake-up, Cosatu is far from moribund.According to Kally Forrest, labour researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand's sociology of work programme, Cosatu needs to address its neglect of informal and vulnerable workers, but it continues to function in its role and plays its part in securing higher wage levels and protecting workers. Reports of its imminent demise, she said, had been exaggerated.

But Marikana has brought home the need for some sort of transformation. According to Leonard Gentle, director of International Labour Research and Information Group, a left-wing think-tank, Cosatu's concept of unionism is based on a model formed when workers were employed full-time, working for a single employer. But the current period resembles the period of capitalism before unions became institutionalised and the peculiar twists of the global era are compounding the complications – casualisation and privatisation being dominant features.

Gentle argues that the old industrial form is dying, but the new form of labour organisation has not yet emerged. Until this happens, unions will search for ways to respond to new realities. Cosatu will have to keep track of these new developments if it is to regain its momentum and its moral stature.

Yunis Momoniat writes and edits for the South African History Online  website

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