The newly elected Cosatu general secretary, Bheki Ntshalintshali, has blamed and named senior members of the ANC-led tripartite alliance for the factional crises that has wrecked the union federation in recent years.
In an interview with the Mail & Guardian on the sidelines of the Cosatu congress on Thursday, Ntshalintshali listed the ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, the South African Communist Party (SACP) general secretary, Blade Nzimande, the SACP deputy chairperson and former general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), Thulas Nxesi, and ANC national executive committee member Fikile Majola as being among those who intensified the factional battles in the federation.
He said these leaders, who had a close personal relationship, formed an informal caucus and took decisions before Cosatu central executive committee meetings. They would later use their influence to get these decisions rubber-stamped by the committee.
“The issue of relationship between the leadership of Cosatu and its affiliates has to be organisational all the time. It can’t be a personal relationship to an extent that I can’t tell you that ‘this thing is wrong’.
“One of the things that put Cosatu in the mess that it was in was the relationship of what was called the ‘progressive leaders’ of the federation. Nzimande, [former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima] Vavi, Mantashe, Majola and Nxesi were people who were sitting together deciding before the meetings of Cosatu. When they disagreed, when this thing disintegrated, they were hating [each other] like nobody’s business. They were not even on speaking terms.
“I don’t think you would hear Zweli talking about Mantashe being good, Nxesi being good. My view is that they moved beyond the organisational relationship. They had a personal relationship. When there was disagreement, they moved in all directions. I think we need to avoid that,” he said.
Mantashe said he did not understand why Ntshalintshali would talk about meetings of which he was not part. “Is he saying he was part of those meetings? He can’t talk if he was not there. He is speculating. I can’t give credence to speculations.”
Majola said he did not wish to talk about matters relating to Cosatu.
“It is not appropriate for me to continue talking about Cosatu issues even after I left. If there are issues about me when I was Nehawu [National Health, Education and Allied Workers’ Union] leader, the union must respond,” he said.
Nxesi said in an SMS: “I dismiss this lies which u r spinning with the contempt it deserves. Bheki will never say that it’s ur imagination which is just meant todrive a wedge or alienate certain individuals from Casatu an agenda driven by u”.
Ntshalintshali partly agreed with former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, who said the tripartite alliance was dead.
“We can’t deny everything that Mkhuluwa [Motlanthe’s nickname] raised. He is a man of integrity. He may not be as close as we are regarding some issues, or he might not be seeing any progress. He might be asking the same issues that workers are asking. ‘You agreed on this thing but [it] is not happening’… If you can count about five things that we all agree that there has been no progress on, he will be correct to make a conclusion and say, from where he is coming, [that] ‘the alliance is not working’.”
It was perhaps Ntshalintshali’s intervention that saved the Cosatu congress from collapsing on Monday. When most of the leaders from Cosatu’s dominant faction grew impatient with rebel unions, particularly the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu), which was unhappy about the issue of credentials, Ntshalintshali called for calm. He convinced the conference to give Fawu and others a platform to raise their concerns so that the conference could discuss the matter.
Fawu lost the debate in the end, but the fact that Ntshalintshali gave the affiliate an opportunity to air its concerns won him accolades from both sides.
“People were becoming impatient. They think they know what Fawu wanted to say. My view was that, even if we know what they want to say, allow them the opportunity, because they have been mandated by their members,” Ntshalintshali said.
“To deny somebody to say what they want to say, even if you disagree, is an injustice and that person becomes angry inside. When you engage them in a sober way, you will win that particular comrade.” His calm and diplomatic approach to disputes could be the answer to the embattled federation.
Ntshalintshali was quick to point out that he did not intend to fill the shoes of his predecessor, Vavi, who was expelled from the federation after he boycotted Cosatu’s central executive committee meetings.
“I don’t want to compare myself with Vavi. I worked with him for 15 years. I followed the same path as him in terms of positions. So I am not filling his boots. People have to accept that I am not Zweli.”
From taxi driver to general secretary of the influential federation, Ntshalintshali has become one of the driving forces within the organisation. Although he kept a low profile for most of his career as a unionist, he has been one of the brains behind Cosatu’s successes.