The journey to the top of South Africa’s biggest labour federation has not been an easy one for Zingiswa Losi.
The first-ever woman president of Cosatu was elected unopposed on Tuesday at its 13th national congress in Midrand. But she has had to tackle gender discrimination and rejection by her comrades before she was considered able to lead the 1.6-million member federation.
“You would find male comrades who expect you to listen to them and toe a particular line, even though it is not a principled position,” Losi said this week. “And they tell you that ‘in the absence of you toeing this line we may reconsider your leadership position’.
“Secondly, there is an expectation that when you are there, you are only there for male comrades to appreciate you for your beauty and expect some personal favours, whether they say it directly or through conduct.”
In between chairing the plenary on Wednesday, she sat down with the Mail & Guardian during lunchtime for a one-on-one interview.
Losi gives a shy smile when the magnitude of her election is mentioned. But she talks tough when asked about her new job.
She says the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa must not expect Cosatu to be a darling federation that will support them at all costs.
“We must refrain from getting closer to ANC presidents of a particular time such that our relationship is defined by who leads the ANC. Our relationship must be defined by what brought the ANC and Cosatu together to be [in] an alliance,” she says.
“For us to go back and win society and remain relevant in fighting for the workers and working class is to look beyond who is leading the ANC.”
Cosatu learnt this lesson the hard way; it fervently supported Jacob Zuma before and after the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference where he was elected president.
Between then and 2017, when it eventually called on Zuma to step down, Cosatu’s reputation took a knock for not speaking out against the ANC leadership. The federation has lost more than half a million members over the past five years. The most significant loss came from the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) in 2014, which took with it more than 300 000 members.
Since 2015, Cosatu has lost an additional 300 000 members, according to its organisational report.
This makes increasing Cosatu’s membership one of Losi’s priorities. Part of the strategy, she said, would be to declare “Red Fridays”, which would be dedicated to recruitment drives for the country’s 10-million non-organised workers.
The strategy would also involve ensuring a better service for members of Cosatu-affiliated unions, to entice their nonrepresented counterparts to sign up.
But there is another membership drive that is probably on the cards — bringing Numsa back into the Cosatu fold.
Losi’s history with Numsa, in which she served as a shop steward, has been a turbulent one. In 2013, she was suspended for refusing to toe the organisation’s line on Cosatu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi.
He was expelled from the federation after a Cosatu staff member accused him of sexual harassment, an incident Numsa accused Losi of orchestrating together with outgoing Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini.
Losi’s suspension threatened to see her lose her position as Cosatu’s second deputy president. Butshe joined the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union when she got a job in correctional services. This enabled her to remain a national office bearer.
Still, there were other attempts to prise her from the post, including Numsa saying it wanted the public protector’s office to investigate her occupation of the position.
Despite the unpleasant treatment from Numsa, Losi says she has forgiven the union.
“I hold no grudges and that has enabled me to grow to be where I am,” she says. “When we spoke to some Numsa comrades, others really wanted to come back to Cosatu. It’s an opportunity for us to engage.
Even if Numsa is not in the federation it is something we should be working towards … having them come back to Cosatu.”
Losi says the ANC should entrust more women with senior positions, but not for the purposes of pushing “narrow political interests”.
Prior to the ANC’s national conference in December, a faction aligned to Zuma threw its weight behind Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his successor. The Ramaphosa faction supported Lindiwe Sisulu as deputy president. But Jessie Duarte was the only female candidate to make it to the top six.
Losi, who was included on Ramaphosa’s slate as a preferred candidate for ANC deputy secretary general, said Cosatu needed to deal with its own prevalence of sexual harassment, which saw women retreating from positions of power.
“We are losing quality leadership of women, who are falling at the wayside, and it is then deemed that: ‘You see, when you give women an opportunity to lead they shy away,’” she said.“It’s not that they are shying away. It’s because there are things happening around them that are affecting them that we are not dealing with.”