Vavi: Cosatu's 'painful reality' may signify its end

Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi says the federation must take the findings of its Political report seriously to avoid further downfalls by 2015. (Gallo)

Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi says the federation must take the findings of its Political report seriously to avoid further downfalls by 2015. (Gallo)

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi says divisions within the federation have impacted negatively on the organisation’s influence in society.

In his draft organisational report prepared for Cosatu’s central committee meeting in November, Vavi warns that the once powerful federation could become irrelevant if its leaders do not act decisively to resolve long-standing divisions.

The ANC’s intervention – led by deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa to resolve tensions among Cosatu leaders – appears to have done very little, if anything, to unite worrying factions within the federation.

The party’s task team, which was expected to present its final report to Cosatu national office bearers by last Thursday, appears to have backtracked on its initial plans to offer Vavi and Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini ambassadorial positions in an effort to bring about unity within the organisation.

Vavi and Dlamini have been identified as key elements of division within Cosatu, with Vavi on the one hand pushing for a militant Cosatu and Dlamini on the other preferring a less critical federation – particularly towards the ANC.

Dilution of organisation power
“Cosatu has through its work over the years built up critical political capital in terms of its image and reputation at home and abroad, and the trust which workers in particular have had in the organisation,” reads Vavi’s report.

“The ‘external impact’ of Cosatu’s organisational paralysis include, firstly the emergence of worrying negative perceptions of Cosatu by the broader working class, and the public in general; and secondly the weakened political role we are objectively able to play in society more broadly.”

Vavi said Cosatu’s reputational damage affected the organisation not only among South African workers and the public, but also extends to the perceptions of Cosatu among key international players, including in the trade union movement.

“While our internal unity and cohesion should be our key concern, it would be a mistake to underestimate the effort that is required to reverse these negative external perceptions of the organisation.

“To paraphrase the saying: it can take years, or decades to build trust, but only months to destroy it, or at least seriously damage it. This is why it is of critical importance that we are absolutely frank with ourselves, our membership, and the broader working class, about the seriousness of the challenges, and our determination to correct the situation that has emerged.

“Equally important to this reputational damage is the fact that the broader political impact of Cosatu’s interventions on key issues is significantly undermined by the dilution of our organisational power.

“Where previously we were able to make society sit up and take notice on any intervention by the Federation, this will no longer be the case, unless we arrest our organisational decline. If we fail to do this, both our class enemies, and our allies, will begin to take less seriously, or even disregard, issues being raised by the Federation,” said Vavi.

Decline in membership
The general secretary said that already there were worrying signs emerging that this was beginning to happen.

“There was already evidence of this danger in relation to Cosatu’s minimal impact at the ANC’s national conference in Mangaung.
The emergence of serious tensions in the federation made it difficult for Cosatu to meaningfully shape critical aspects of the resolutions, including on the economy and the NDP [National Development Plan],” Vavi said.

“We were forced to launch a rearguard action after the Conference, for example in relation to the NDP, to minimise the damage caused by our lack of coherence in Mangaung.”

While Cosatu’s membership remained above 2-million, Vavi said there has been worrying decline in membership in certain sectors since the federation’s 11th national conference in 2012.

“Equally worrying is the qualitative decline in the organisational cohesion of our affiliates, threatened splits, scandals, declining levels of services. Few can be in doubt that the coherence and unity of Cosatu has been seriously undermined, and the real possibility has emerged at one point of the federation itself splitting,” the secretary conceded.

“Divisions or scandals in a significant number of affiliates (this is being experience in about 7 affiliates representing over a third of the membership) have either led to splits, or have seriously undermined their effective functioning.”

Only intact on paper
With regard to the alliance, Vavi said it remained intact on paper. The paralysis in Cosatu and the challenges faced by the ANC and the SACP have meant that the alliance was at its lowest point since 2001, when the right wing attempted to force Cosatu and the South African Communist Party out of the alliance, said Vavi.

He added that if Cosatu allowed the current trajectory to continue, it may rapidly be heading for the worst-case scenario painted by the federation’s 2015 plan.

“This is a painful reality we had never thought would materialise when we discussed the 2015 plan at our 2003 Congress. We need to take seriously the warning of Cosatu’s 2012 Political Report, which discussed this scenario, and concluded that: ‘If we don’t act decisively to address a range of concerns, these elements of the scenario may indeed become a reality over the medium to long term’.” Vavi said.

“If all, or even some of the elements of this worst-case scenario materialised, we would see the end of Cosatu as we know it. Clearly we cannot allow such a disastrous situation to unfold.”

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo is the political editor of the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003 and has won numerous awards since then, including the regional award for Vodacom Journalist of the Year in the economics and finance category in 2015, SA Journalist of the Year in 2011, the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the Year award in 2008 and CNN African Journalist of the Year – MKO Abiola Print Journalism in 2004. Read more from Matuma Letsoalo

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