Rise of the gentlemen unionists

Cosatu’s history in going head to head with the government—and the ANC—isn’t great. It tends to win the battle, but never the war. But the game may be changing.

With comparisons between labour broking and apartheid, and calls for a boycott of Gauteng’s new e-tolls, Cosatu has been building towards it for weeks. But at Wednesday’s march union boss Zwelinzima Vavi made it formal: unless there are drastic changes before the beginning of April, the union federation will embark on a defiance campaign.

It looks narrow in scope, but the fight goes deeper than two issues. In the broader context of Cosatu’s struggle with the ANC over basic economic principles, an argument it has lost for more than a decade, such a campaign takes on far greater significance. And Cosatu has promised to go the distance, comparing its plans with the long-term occupations of public spaces in other countries.

“This is not a one-day thing,” Vavi told Johannesburg protesters, who stretched as far as the eye could see (and well beyond the reach of his amplified voice) down the urban canyon formed by commercial buildings. “The same way we made the apartheid system ungovernable, we’ll make this system ungovernable if they don’t listen to us.” Judging from the roars of approval, the idea of such action, which stops barely short of insurrection, is not unpopular.

The “system” Vavi was referring to was the payment mechanism for the planned urban freeway tolls around Johannesburg, rather than government authority as a whole. Yet it is unlikely to be accidental that the language harks back to the United Democratic Front (UDF) campaign of defiance in the 1980s. It’s the kind of action, as the ANC’s own Oliver Tambo defined it in 1984, that mounts “such an offensive that the enemy finds it difficult to stop our forward march to liberation”.

Labour broking
Labour broking speaks to the heart of the economic difference of opinion between the ANC and Cosatu. Banning the practice would mean a more rigid labour system, at a time when international competitiveness and job creation is of paramount importance to the ANC. It would also greatly improve protection for those already employed, which is Cosatu’s primary purpose.

Urban freeway tolls, by contrast, are an administrative choice about the best way to pay for better infrastructure. Conflating the two dilutes the core labour message—but opens the door for the kind of direct offensive that cannot be mounted against a labour practice. But barricading highways, as Vavi vowed Cosatu would do if its demand for the scrapping of tolls is not met, is about as direct as it gets.

There is a simple way for the ANC to reduce the pressure on its labour policy and remove the threat of such direct action: cave in on the tolls and avoid rolling action. And hand Cosatu a famous popular victory and extra momentum just as fundamental policy is under discussion.

Another choice the ANC faces is a similar no-lose proposition for Cosatu. The defiance is of government, chiefly the Gauteng provincial government, rather than the party. Should the ANC choose to distance itself from the two issues, it would effectively be admitting that the executive government was acting contrary to the policy of the party. That is a charge Cosatu has brought on numerous occasions, as it argues that its input in the tripartite alliance has little effect on how the government acts. If the ANC stands by the government, as it has to date, it gives Cosatu the head-on confrontation it seeks, at a time when the party is preoccupied with internal matters. It is not inconceivable that internal opposition in the ANC could coalesce around Cosatu in such a fight, which would again lend it more power.

Cosatu the people’s champion
Cosatu’s renewed positioning of itself as a militant champion of the poor, another reason for picking up the toll baton, has already paid off. By all accounts Julius Malema’s appearance in Johannesburg, twice, was not planned by Cosatu. However, once the crowd spotted Malema, and started a near-riot as hundreds rushed to touch him, it was inevitable.

And it went down remarkably well, especially with the younger members of the crowd, some of whom said they were not ANC Youth League members, but respected Malema’s “war for economic liberation”.

Yet even as Cosatu spoke of bringing cities to a standstill if its demands were not met, language not unfamiliar at a Malema rally, the union organisation showed a different style of militancy to that of the youth league, the rallies of which, in recent years, have invariably carried an air of menace. The jingoism at such events has been steadily increasing as league leaders have come under increased pressure from the ANC mothership.

Service-delivery protests default to at least low-level violence and vandalism, in the belief that it is impossible to attract attention and ultimately achieve change by other means. When demanding higher wages or better working conditions, individual unions tend to imply the threat of more than just withholding their labour, and in some instances they follow through.

Cosatu’s actions on Wednesday could be described as a gentlemanly discussion on a large scale, conducted on the streets. The atmosphere was, in a word, jovial. “Nobody is here to fight with anyone,” said a marshal when asked about the absence of drama. “We’re here to show that we can fight if we have to, but if they just listen we won’t need to do that.”

In previous policy battles with the ANC, such as its protests against the privatisation of state-owned companies, Cosatu had more anger going for it, and that proved effective; Eskom and Transnet remain government-owned, after all. But the real war about economic policy went against it. A more measured approach, which is what Wednesday amounted to, may yield a different result.

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