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Shadow of Marikana hangs over Cosatu congress

"Marikana is going to overshadow the whole proceedings," said political author William Gumede.

Political analyst Stephen Friedman said Marikana should be a warning to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which opens its four-day congress in Midrand on Monday.

"It's been through a period over the last few years where it was more concerned with trying to influence ANC elections than with building up support in the workplace," he said.

"Marikana is a warning. It should remind trade unions [that] unions get out of touch with their members, they become too complacent, as has happened in Cosatu."

Forty-five people have been killed in incidents relating to an illegal strike at Lonmin's platinum mine in Marikana, in North West, since August.

The ongoing strike has been partly blamed on rivalry between incumbent union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – a Cosatu affiliate – and a breakaway union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

NUM has been accused of losing touch with its members, which has allowed Amcu to gain influence.

Gumede said Cosatu needed to address its lack of responsiveness to workers' concerns.

"They have to deal with the perception that there is a deep divide between union members and leaders, who are seen as the new elite, while the rank and file, grassroots members are struggling."

Alliance relationship
Cosatu also needed to consider its relationship with the tripartite alliance of the ANC and the South African Communist Party.

"There is the feeling that the alliance is not giving them as much as they are putting into it … The alliance for many ordinary members doesn't offer much protection or deliver material benefits," Gumede said.

Friedman said Cosatu needed to realise it had not benefited from influencing ANC leadership decisions.

"Cosatu leadership has relied on the idea that if you are able to get favourable ANC leadership, then all sorts of benefits would flow from that: you'd get pro-union decisions. Clearly that didn't work," Friedman said.

This was because decisions were not influenced by picking the leaders in the party but by showing that an organisation enjoyed broad support.

"People have to listen to you because you speak for many people."

Gumede said Cosatu's focus on ANC politics could threaten its stability.

"The very same fights and factionalism in the ANC, is now in Cosatu.

"This threatens the stability of the union … They have allowed the ANC fights to take [up] their attention, which has nothing to do with [the] day-to-day life of union members."

Leadership battle
Gumede said the ANC leadership battle would "play out" at the congress.

The ANC will elect new leaders at Mangaung in December. Although the leadership contest officially opens in October, when ANC branches nominate their candidates, President Jacob Zuma is expected to stand for a second term.

"There is going to be a battle for those who want Zuma and those who want him out."

Gumede added: "What is happening now, is opponents of Zuma are using Marikana to show him as someone who cannot lead … This is going to play out at the Cosatu congress."

Friedman said Cosatu should focus on building its strength in the workplace, and not on politics, at the congress.

He did not expect the congress to become a "mini-Mangaung" as has been suggested in some reports.

Friedman said Cosatu's internal democracy was "way ahead of the ANC", as it had been around for almost 30 years. The ANC, on the other hand, had only shifted from being a liberation movement to a governing party in the 1990s.

"If you look at the ANC … nobody really wants to talk about the big issues, it's all about who is going to be the president. You saw this at the policy conference," Friedman said, referring to the ANC policy conference in July.

"The union movement has protections against this, which the ANC doesn't have … people have developed various ways of doing things, of conducting themselves democratically," he said.

Split
If Cosatu continued to focus on politics instead of its members, it could lead to fragmentation of the union movement in the medium to long-term, Gumede said.

"I don't think there will be a split [from the alliance], but affiliates will break away … into splinter unions, like we see with the NUM at Marikana. That's going to be the trend."

Gumede warned that this could potential destabilise the labour market.

For this reason, the central bargaining system needed to be reformed to make it simpler and easier for a union to get recognition.

At the moment, a new union finds it very difficult to be registered and recognised.

"What often happens is that unions go on a long, protracted strike for recognition, or it turns into [a] clash between an established union and new union," Gumede said, adding that this led to Marikana-type problems.

Friedman suggested that Cosatu should also focus on people who fell outside the formal economy.

This was a major problem for unions around the world, as companies increasingly embraced technology and shed workers.

Union growth
"What do you do about people who can't get into the job market at all …? How do you organise those people?"

This affected trade union growth, as employers hired fewer people.

As a consequence, Cosatu's membership had grown more in the public sector than the private sector.

Cosatu's declared membership for 2012 is 2.2-million, of which 39% are in the public sector. In 1991, 7% of Cosatu's members worked in the public sector.

Friedman said increasing growth in the public sector was not sustainable. – Sapa

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Gillian Jones
Guest Author

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