Can unions pull together for summit?
Union federation Cosatu goes into this weekend’s tripartite alliance economic summit with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) perhaps the most divided it’s ever been in its nearly 28 years of existence.
The aim of the summit, which takes place in Centurion outside Pretoria, is for leaders to thrash out differences over economic policy.
Those supportive of suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi are pushing for a hardline approach to the National Development Plan – the government’s long-term strategy to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030 – whereas those aligned to federation president Sdumo Dlamini prefer a softer and more inclusive approach.
This summit could also signal whether Cosatu will be supporting the ANC in next year’s general elections as a united or a fractured force.
The Food and Allied Workers Union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu), Cosatu affiliate unions which support Vavi, say the development plan was at odds with the alliance’s perspective on the need for a radical economic shift.
Unions calling for a more centrist approach on the plan include the National Union of Mineworkers, teachers’ union Sadtu, transport union Satawu, and public service union Nehawu.
The Food and Allied Workers Union general secretary Katishi Masemola blasted the plan as a “product of bureaucracy in government” and said it was drawn up by an unelected committee of “20 hand-picked individuals constituting the national planning commission”.
“A unilateral government implementation on such a significant blue-print that will affect children’s futures and the coming generation cannot be left to the wisdom of a few people to determine,” said Masemola, quoting his union’s national executive committee resolution on the plan.
“Even more critical, the ANC cannot be unilateral in adopting ... the National Development Plan and imposing it on society without taking strategic allies, and certainly Cosatu, into confidence.”
Following its central executive committee, which rejected Vavi’s suspension and called for a special congress to resolve Cosatu’s internal issues, Samwu called for the redrafting and fundamental overhaul of the economic chapter of the plan, as well as other aspects they say are in conflict with alliance policies and the Freedom Charter.
Cosatu’s acting general secretary, Bheki Ntshalintshali, acknowledged that the federation was deeply divided but denied the suspension of Vavi would have an adverse effect on the negotiations at the summit.
“I don’t believe that the ‘GS’ would be speaking in his own voice if he was still here,” said Ntshalintshali.
“There will be many voices at the summit [representing Cosatu]. To be heard you need many voices. No individual can win the debates in the alliance.”
However, senior alliance leaders told the Mail & Guardian that partners whose aim was to “smash” the National Development Plan were likely to face hostility from supporters of the plan at the ANC-led summit, which starts on August 30.
Although the majority of unions affiliated to federation Cosatu are divided about the National Development Plan, the ANC and the SACP appear to be committed to the policy.
The SACP has raised concerns about the plan but it called for discussions that would put alliance partners on the same page.
The summit was postponed last month amid reports that a dispute over the plan led to the collapse of the meeting. All partners denied the reports at the time.
This week, however, an SACP leader told the M&G that demands similar to the ones that were being made by some Cosatu leaders on the development plan last month were the cause of the summit’s failure.
“It doesn’t help to approach the ANC with that attitude of demands,” said the SACP leader.
“The party can get very hardened by such approaches. The last time the summit got sidetracked Cosatu made the same mistakes.”
But the SACP leader said things are expected to be calmer this time around. Despite expectations that Cosatu affiliates that support Vavi will take over where he left off, opposing the National Development Plan, alliance sources said this summit would be managed better.
“There will maybe be a two-hour debate on the plan. Then there will be a committee that drafts a joint statement saying parties recognise their differences and agree to work together,” said the SACP leader.
In its discussion document on the plan the SACP said the hardline position taken by both the plan’s supporters and opponents “risks exactly the opposite of what the development plan was intended to achieve”.
The SACP said it was “deeply concerned that the plan is being turned into a divisive political football”.
SACP spokesperson Malesela Maleka said: “Our approach is that we don’t throw away the idea of long-term planning. We should rather work on the weaknesses, tighten them and embrace the strengths.”
Satawu wants its fellow affiliates to have constructive discussions, said spokesperson Vincent Masoga.
“The plan is a living document,” he said. “It must be engaged instead of being rejected and the engagement must be constructive and not about proving a point.”
Sadtu’s general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, said his union rejected some aspects of the plan but hoped to engage the ANC in an attempt to agree with the federation on their reservations.
“We are going to the summit with the hope of engaging [the ANC], our alliance partners, on our problems with the plan and possibly reach an agreement. There are areas that we don’t agree with, especially its target of creating 11-million jobs by 2030.
“We believe this is too low and it won’t address the totality of unemployment in our country,” said Maluleke.
In June, Cosatu’s central executive committee resolved that the plan had fundamental flaws that placed it at odds with the alliance’s perspective on the need for a radical economic shift. Cosatu’s senior leaders said it would be a “fundamental error” to push ahead with the plan’s implementation when such flaws had been exposed.