Editorial: Cosatu must put its members first

Fighting demagogy is ­asymmetrical warfare, although Cosatu cannot adopt the tactics of a Malema. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Fighting demagogy is ­asymmetrical warfare, although Cosatu cannot adopt the tactics of a Malema. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

There will be a lot of talk about Jacob Zuma when the leaders of South Africa's dominant labour federation, Cosatu, meet at its national conference.

The conference will be held next week. They would do ­better to focus on Dumisani Mthinthi.

On Tuesday afternoon the 51-year-old National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) shop steward was hacked to death outside Lonmin's Marikana mine, where strikers armed with pangas and spears were ­discussing their rejection of the peace accord between the company and the established unions.

NUM officials from shop floor level up have been pilloried since the Marikana massacre as cosseted co-optees of union and management power, out-of-touch with those they represent and too ready to cut deals.

That may be true in some kind of broad aggregate sense. On the other hand, Mthinthi himself may have been a brilliant and committed worker ­representative. Certainly he must have been a brave man to go into a crowd, whose anger at his union was being fuelled by the rhetoric of their own ­formal or informal leaders, and by expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, who has told miners to strike until the leadership of the NUM is removed.

We do not know much about Mthinthi , or why he was killed, but we know that he did not deserve to die, any more than those killed by the police.

If they do reflect on his murder, Cosatu leaders may be tempted to frame it solely in terms of what they see as a conspiracy spearheaded by Malema, but funded and orchestrated from within the ANC's burgeoning internal ­opposition to bring down Zuma.

There is some justification for that view, but if they can see no further the federation's leaders risk deepening their irrelevance, at best.

To be sure, there is little doubt that Malema is attempting to force a crisis at the productive heart of the economy. He may have failed with the army, but his willingness to mobilise among the military was a stunning demonstration of how far he is prepared to go – including beyond the limits of his own support.

And there can be little doubt that he is in touch with senior ANC figures and their business backers in his demagogic crusade.

His own organic base outside the youth league may be small, but he is a master at finding and exploiting alienation and rage. Many workers will likely see straight through him, but the potential for damage along the way is staggering.

The NUM, closely associated with support for Zuma, is an obvious ­target of this strategy. And Malema has sought to drive the wedge between Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu's general secretary, and his pro-Zuma critics in the federation, deeper by describing Vavi as the only "true revolutionary" left in its leadership.

Vavi is having none of that, but – as we have been reporting for some months now – there is nevertheless a coalition of the federation's affiliates working to try to unseat him and secure a more reliable supporter of Zuma ahead of the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung in December.

They will be inclined to agree with Cosatu's president, Sdumo Dlamini, who told Business Day in an apparent criticism of Vavi: "It can't be Cosatu that goes out loud and says we are a failing federation", adding that "if any individual assumes the position of I, I, I, Cosatu is capable of managing that."

Electoral slates
They would also be deeply mistaken, however, if they saw the choices they need to make over the coming week in terms limited to the electoral slates that are being finalised ahead of their conference.

Some of the most important mines in a mining-dependent country are already shuttered. Others may follow if a real alternative to the "mining ­revolution" does not emerge. And the risk of more violence is real.

Cosatu needs both short- and medium-term responses to this crisis, and its conference should be energised by the need to find them, rather than ­enervated by ANC factional politics. To the extent that alliance considerations ­feature – and no doubt they must – the focus should be on how the union ­federation will exert its power in the alliance to wrest the governing party out of its somnolence and sleaze.

What might a short-term response look like? Fighting demagogy is ­asymmetrical warfare, although Cosatu cannot adopt the tactics of a Malema. However, leaders from Vavi on down can be present and can drive a strategy to be responsive to the real concerns of workers without putting the industry that employs them to fire and the sword.

Instead of tarring striking miners as pawns of their alliance enemies, they can show what they are going to do about their problems – from ­housing to wages, to failing local councils that do not supply basic services in their communities.

In the medium term the federation must act urgently on the recommendations in Vavi's political report that it act to close the "social distance" between unions and their members.

That looks like a complex institutional job, requiring reforms to the f­ormal and informal ways officials are compensated and to the culture of the ­tripartite alliance – but, above all, it should be guided by the principle of putting worker interests first.

Unless Cosatu is able to do that, there will be more Dumisani Mthinthis, more deserted mines, and more Malemas.

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