Politics bedevils unions’ work, says Zwelinzima Vavi

Vavi has also revealed in his secretariat report prepared for Cosatu's national congress next month that the federation is battling to reach targets set in its 2015 plan, including the recruitment of new members.

The federation set itself an ambitious target of reaching four million members by 2015, but that seems unlikely. It has managed to grow its members by just more than 400 000 to the current 2.2-million in the past 10 years.

"We have fallen far short of the targets set by the [2015] plan, to a significant extent because of our own failure to implement agreed plans and programmes," Vavi writes in his report. "Part of the reason for this is an insufficient focus on the core business of the federation because of an overemphasis on political contestation."

In 2010, the University of Johan­nesburg's Professor Sakhela Buhlungu claimed in his book A Paradox of Victory that Cosatu had neglected its membership and internal structures to focus on political matters. He also said privileged union leaders had become alienated from the rank and file.

Bargaining councils
According to Buhlungu, for some echelons of shop stewards the interaction with employers and state officials occurred in bargaining councils and on other platforms, which affected their behaviour.

"During social occasions at such events, the conversation is seldom, if at all, about building a workers' paradise and is more often about the latest trend in consumption – cars, houses, food and expensive drinks, golf club memberships and free tickets to watch sports matches from corporate suites at sports stadiums.

"All this means that leadership positions have become inscribed with power and privilege, hence the often acrimonious leadership contests for power and resources that have occurred within the unions in recent years."

Vavi seems to agree with this in his report: "Different lifestyles and material realities are creating a leadership which is not fully in tune with what members are facing. Crises faced by working-class communities, for example, in the area of dysfunctional hospitals, the textbook saga, the winter electricity cut-offs, prepaid water cut-offs, do not appear to be taken up by our unions working in those sectors with the same vigour as if there had been a problem with wages.

"If there were, we could expect to have seen strikes, or at least high-profile campaigns, erupt around some of these crises. Perceptions are setting in that some union leaders are reluctant to take up certain issues for fear of embarrassing the ANC.

"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."

The department of labour has reported that a large number of Cosatu affiliates have not complied with registration requirements. The powerful National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa, the South African Municipal Workers' Union, the South African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union, the National Health and Allied Workers' Union and the South African Football Players' Union could be deregistered for not submitting audited financial statements and membership figures since 2009.

Vavi on the ropes: Send us your questions

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See our live chat with Phillip de Wet last week about Zumaville.

Matuma Letsoala
Guest Author

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