Editorial: Cosatu a house of cards

The crumbling of trade union federation Cosatu continued apace this week. First there was the long-expected firing of general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who has lately been more on the side of the unions that have split from Cosatu than on the side of those that remain in the fold. Then, as revealed in today’s Mail & Guardian, there is the labour federation’s own internal documentation of just how bad its financial situation is.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa split and, before that, Marikana and the burgeoning of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, largely at the expense of the National Union of Mineworkers, have all weighed heavily on Cosatu. A weak economy and retrenchments have also meant a loss of some members, and the rebel unions are refusing to remit any of their funds to the federation. But Cosatu’s internal money problems are probably most damaging, especially when they reveal a state of financial mess more dire in magnitude than the malfeasance or mismanagement Vavi is alleged to have been responsible for.

Besides accusations of corruption in several unions and at least one reaching the brink of bankruptcy, there’s the money owed to it that Cosatu has not been able to recoup: for instance, the vanguard of the workers’ struggle, the South African Communist Party, doesn’t pay its rent.

Look at how Cosatu has spent its money over the last while. It paid out nearly as much for vehicles and driving its officials around as it did for political activities, such as its election campaign for the ANC. Are such expenditures mandated by the leadership, because they are the ones who benefit? They get allowances for housing and housing-related costs such as rates, to the tune of more than R5 000 a month per office bearer. Therefore, in a year Cosatu spends more on such perks for one national office bearer than it does on all the initiatives that are meant to benefit workers – industrial policy, health, safety, skills and retirement funds.

More than R60 000 a year for one person’s perks may not seem much compared with the vast amounts wasted by the state or spent on projects such as Nkandla, but it does make the Cosatu leadership look a lot like the “predatory elite” that Vavi once warned South Africa about. How can Cosatu honestly represent workers when its leaders have jumped on such a gravy train?

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These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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