Ageing Cosatu battles for legitimacy

South Africa's robust but ageing trade union movement is facing the beginnings of a crisis of legitimacy 30 years after its formation.

It was instrumental in the struggle against apartheid and has been part of the ruling alliance with the ANC since democracy. But the recent crisis at Lonmin mines, where workers essentially rejected the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Cosatu's largest affiliate, showed a divorce between union leaders and workers on the ground.

Cosatu was left scrambling to save face on Wednesday after workers negotiated their own settlement without the help of the NUM, after the bloody Marikina shootings by police that left 34 miners dead and the country outraged.

Commending the wage settlement of 22% that was reached on Tuesday, Cosatu called for workers to return to the NUM. "Return and help to build an even stronger and more united union," the federation urged on Wednesday. "United we stand! Divided we fall!"

Notably, many of the miners who did fall in the clash with police were younger than 25, an age group rarely seen in Cosatu.

According to a survey conducted by the labour federation this year, only one in seven Cosatu members are under the age of 30, as opposed to one in three among non-unionised members.

The average age of Cosatu members across different unions is 40, and the union is worried about the lack of younger members in its ranks. In addition, the education levels of Cosatu members are very low: 39% have not completed high school.

"These statistics on age should be a real wake-up call for us. We are clearly not doing enough to attract young workers," said the trade federation in its organisation report, which it presented at its national conference on Thursday. It acknowledged, however, that the data was compromised as several affiliates did not provide sufficient age and gender information of its members.

Membership numbers are also far below set targets. In 2003, Cosatu set itself a goal of 4-million members by 2009, but only managed to achieve 1.97-million by that time. By 2012, that had grown to 2.2-million. Not one of its affiliated unions had managed to raise its membership by 10% every year.

Other statistics from the report:

  • About 500 000 members earn less that R2 500 a month
  • 39% of members have not completed high school
  • Less than 1% of members are white. "We need to pay urgent attention to the recruitment of white and coloured workers," said the report.


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