Split a chance to build a new federation

The big split has happened: the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has been expelled from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Cosatu was always more than a labour federation. Those who masterminded this betrayal know this. But their vision is clouded by their own myopia.

Section 19 of the South African Constitution reads: every citizen is free to make political choices, which includes the right to form a political party; to participate in the activities of, or recruit members for, a political party; and to campaign for a political party or cause.

When legitimate dissent becomes a crime then we have lost the very essence of our democracy. Dissent is not treason. And that’s the message that we, as the citizens of our country, need to give to our leaders and rulers. The expulsion of Numsa from the federation is a crossroads not just for Cosatu, but for our country as a whole.

The extraordinary decision to boot Numsa from Cosatu calls for a deep reflection, analysis and evaluation on the state of our nation. What is the road ahead? Do we have clarity of purpose to forge a forward path of shared peace, prosperity and openness?

Or will we soon descend into a fragmented and authoritarian state, driven by political and economic elites?

Workers have always joined trade unions to protect their interests. As the founding national office bearers of Cosatu, we had differences but we never divided workers. We have always treated our positions in leadership as the guardians of workers’ unity.

It is unforgivable
Cosatu itself was the result of tireless and painstaking work by thousands of cadres, many of whom sacrificed their jobs, suffered detention and torture, and even gave their lives.

We are talking about the lives of a key constituency in the fabric of society, not a deck of political playing cards with two jokers. To have 33 leaders take a decision to expel Numsa (24 were opposed to it) and to irreparably wound a key public institution of more than two million members is unforgivable.

In today’s South Africa, I see institution after institution undermined. I see the inflammatory language used by those in power and their sycophantic subordinates as they demonise and dehumanise their opponents. I see political expediency trump serving the people.

Cosatu was always more than a labour federation. It was created as an important outlet for voicing the hopes, grievances and aspirations of many of those feeling excluded or marginalised from our democracy.

Already the social fabric of our country is tearing under the stress of wide-scale municipal protests over corruption and nondelivery of water, sanitation, refuse removal and other basic services.

Most are alienated from their leaders, whom they see as disconnected from their day-to-day challenges. They have begun to lose trust in our democracy. The majority of young people, after 12 years of education, have few skills, no jobs and are unlikely to have a job in their lifetime.

Political arrogance is no answer
The reaction by those in power, an increased militarisation of our security forces, reminds me of the tightening laager mentality of our terrible past.

The consequences are often tragic, as they were in Marikana. Using a blunt panga to cut a pound of butter failed under apartheid. It will fail now.

We cannot go back to that. A growing political arrogance is no answer to legitimate grievances and it will only bring further political instability.

Now we’ve been exposed to the sorry state of organisation under Cosatu, to say nothing of the rest of civil society. As investor confidence drops and the country’s already dim prospects grow even dimmer, our economic downturn is even more obvious.

The building blocks of Cosatu were based on migrant workers. It was the blue-collar workers, living and working in brutal conditions, who built the labour movement. The post-1994 scenario and the growth of the public sector unions have tilted the balance of power towards the white-collar workers. The mining and manufacturing sectors have plummeted. All of these factors have created the tensions and contradictions we are now seeing playing out.

Cosatu’s political independence
I was part of the leadership that led Cosatu into an alliance with the ANC and South African Communist Party. We had a clear objective: we were making a commitment to a profound transformation of the cheap labour system and its attendant diseases of joblessness, poverty, gender violence and inequality.

The strong, determined, committed Cosatu struck at the heart of apartheid. In all my discussions with comrades such as OR Tambo, John Nkadimeng, Chris Hani, Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo, there was an explicit commitment to the political independence of Cosatu. They worked tirelessly in building the unity of the labour movement.

I see little evidence of that political leadership today.

There is growing foment in our land. The people in our townships, rural areas and squatter camps are bitter that democracy has not delivered the fruits that they see a tiny elite enjoying.

There was a time when the Cosatu shop steward was a community leader and an education activist. That time is no more.

I think the call for a special national congress is an important one to resolve the current impasse. I hope that Cosatu will answer that call.

This moment offers us the opportunity for a realignment of unions in one new federation, which has the goal of serving the actual interests of the organised workers and is independent of any political party.

History judges harshly those whose only claim to legitimacy is to rest on the laurels of past glory.

Lest we forget, as Frantz Fanon writes in the Wretched of the Earth: “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it, in relative opacity.”

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick.

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