Cosatu’s Problem Child Throws a Tantrum

Saccawu, one of the country’s biggest unions, is a headache for Pick ‘n Pay — but it’s also a headache for Cosatu, writes Drew Forrest

‘WE have no problem with Jews as a religious group,” explained the union official on radio, in defence of strikers who had hurled anti-Semitic slogans at a Jewish old age home in Cape Town, “only with Jewish bosses.”

A clear reference to the Ackermans of strike-bound Pick ‘n Pay, the pronouncement seemed to encapsulate the woes and weaknesses of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu).

A similar pandering to indefensible worker conduct — a symptom of feeble and incoherent leadership — has run through the Pick ‘n Pay dispute. No one is in doubt that groups of workers have used violent intimidation of customers and replacement employees as a deliberate tactic to close stores. But union officials continue to insist the violence is an entirely understandable response to police provocation.


Either because they cannot deliver or have no real interest in orderly industrial action, officials refused to negotiate strike rules in the run-up to the strike. On two occasions since the violence erupted, they have spent hours negotiating a code of conduct only to balk at signing it.

Saccawu’s Sithembele Tshwete explained this was because the union’s priority was the wage demand, while strike conduct was “a side-issue”.

With 105 000 members, Saccawu is one of Cosatu’s biggest affiliates — and its biggest headache. It has some dedicated staffers and has clinched some uniquely important agreements, notably in the parental rights area. But fierce ideological and personal infighting at the top have sapped its energies and robbed it of direction and strategic coherence, leaving it “leaderless and rudderless”, according to one employer who knows it well.

“There has never been a personality or group of personalities — like Cyril Ramaphosa or Ebrahim Patel — with the credibility and influence to take charge,” he added. “Sactwu and Numsa (Cosatu’s textile and metal affiliates) certainly aren’t weak, but they’re professional and disciplined. With Saccawu, a combination of stubbornness and mindless militancy make it very difficult to do rational business.”

The saga of Saccawu’s internal ructions began in 1987 when it fractured into two unions, the first broadly pro-ANC and the other a witch’s brew of Africanists and far leftists which controlled the powerful and wealthy Johannesburg branch. Cosatu’s second congress witnessed the bizarre and — for the federation — deeply embarrassing spectacle of both splinters standing up and claiming to be “official”.

“For many workers the dispute was one between leadership,” writes Jeremy Baskin in Striking Back, a history of Cosatu. “Ordinary members tended to remain loyal to the union as they knew it — through the shop stewards, organisers and union offices closest to it … The appeals of rival factions to ‘higher’ political principles usually fell on deaf ears.”

Commentators believe that under the weak and bureaucratic hand of former general secretary Emma Mashinini, the union had become ripe for penetration by political axe-grinders of all stripes. The recruitment of township youth activists, instead of workers, as organisers heightened the politically supercharged atmosphere in the union, they say.

In a union always marked by an absence of pluralism and free debate, both sides were intent on “winning”. Typically fuelling division and obstructing compromise was a handful of Trotskyists with disproportionate influence in the Johannesburg region, many of them middle-class non- Africans. “They were more interested in striking revolutionary postures than deals,” recalls one insider. “More than anyone else, they were responsible for the blinkered confrontationalism, this belief that you have to have constant uproar, which still pervades Saccawu.”

Over the next three years, until Cosatu brokered a re- unification process in 1990, the split spawned legal battles, a further rift and hive-off from the “socialist” faction, shop-floor fisticuffs and the ludicrous practice of joint negotiations based on separate mandates and report-backs.

But despite the fanfare surrounding it, the merger failed to heal the breach. By 1992 the Johannesburg local, boycotted by shop stewards fed to the back teeth with the conflict, had collapsed. Charges of corruption flew at the union’s national congress. Johannesburg office-bearers were suspended by the National Executive Council. Then in a tragicomic climax to the feud, the far left faction fell back on bourgeois justice, approaching the supreme court to have the union dissolved.

“Given their power base in about three companies, this was amazingly arrogant,” was one insider’s comment. “No more than 20 hardliners caused all the shit in the union.”

Most of the ultras have resigned, or in the case of arch- sectarian Salim Vally, were fired in controversial circumstances. But one of their number, key Johannesburg negotiator Mike Tsotetsi, provided a fitting tailpiece to the farce by setting up a rival union, the Commercial, Catering, Clerical and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (CCCAWUSA).

With the departure of former general secretary and leader of the pro-congress faction Papi Kganare to become minister of safety and security in the Free State, the debilitating ideological convulsions which have gripped the union seem finally to be over.

But the consequences live on. Rumour has it that Cosatu’s textile affiliate has begun organising in a range of chain stores, Saccawu’s stamping ground, in response to complaints of poor service. Cleaning workers in the Transport and General Workers Union, due to be transferred to Saccawu in line with Cosatu policy of one union one sector, are said to be loath to move. Saccawu’s embryonic push for central bargaining in its sectors appears to have evaporated in the intense heat of its leadership tussles.

Commented one employer: “A major adjustment is going to be needed if this union is to become a constructive force. Supplying leadership and resources, I think Cosatu has to step in.”

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