Cosatu — the largest and until recently the most important labour federation in the country — is facing an existential crisis.
Left unchecked, current trends will render Cosatu an insignificant labour, political and social force within a decade or less. At its peak, the federation boasted more than 2.4-million members, with ambitious plans to reach 4-million in time for its 30th anniversary in 2015.
Today those ambitions seem fanciful, as Cosatu struggles to rebuild after years of decay and decline. Membership stands at less than 1.8-million and is still trending downwards. Unsurprisingly, the decline in membership has hit Cosatu in the pocket, and the resulting financial crisis will only accelerate its downward spiral.
In the final analysis the leadership of the federation, aided and abetted by the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP), bear the bulk of the responsibility for a state of affairs that is nothing less than a betrayal of organised workers and the poor.
It does not bode well for the federation’s ability to turn itself around that three of the national office bearers elected at its recent congress are veterans of the factional bloodletting that has torn it apart over the past six years.
But the crisis in Cosatu is not just one of politics, although politics plays a significant role. Nor is it purely organisational, though organisationally the federation is at the worst it has ever been.
It is also not adequate to look only to economics to explain it, although 27% unemployment, a recession, low levels of investment and South Africa’s general economic malaise are all part of the problem.
Cosatu’s ultimate problem is that the grand-scale project that is post-apartheid South Africa has itself reached a historical impasse. The very existence of Cosatu and its success over many years was the result of the social compacts that founded the post-1994 republic. The health of Cosatu, therefore, is inextricably bound to the health of the republic, in much the same wayit is to the state of the ANC and its alliance.
And much like the ANC, Cosatu has tried to put on a brave face, using its recent congress to at least put a plaster over its gaping wounds even if all accept that a week-long meeting cannot heal what has taken so many years to break.
At the previous such gathering, a special congress that sat at the height of Cosatu’s divisions over the rapacious governance of Jacob Zuma, metalworkers’ union Numsa and former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi were booted out. Barely two years later, the talk at this year’s congress was whether the federation should reach out to Numsa and the Food and Allied Workers Union to bring them back into the fold.
In fact, delegates were so keen to avoid any kind of fighting that they allowed the embattled South African Municipal Workers’ Union observer status,which arrived with two factions and attempted to stop the meeting from going ahead.
Both Cosatu and the ANC are battle-torn and war-weary. Cosatu admitted in its political report to the congress that infighting has been so severe that the federation pursued very little of the policy programme it adopted at its last statutory congress in 2015. At that congress Vavi made a similar admission about the resolutions adopted at the 2012 gathering.
Most troubling politically is that relations have hardly improved in the disastrous ménage àtrois that is the tripartite alliance since the ruling party’s elective conference last December, which narrowly made Cyril Ramaphosa — supported by Cosatu over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — the ANC president. What were the divisions and difficulties of half a decade for if very little changedin their relationship to — and their influence in — the ANC and the government?
More importantly, Cosatu’s
“all-in” wagers in ANC leadership contests always seem to return the same outcomes: a warm fuzzy glow and platitudes about unity and the centrality of the tripartite alliance, followed by minimal progress in enacting progressive economic and labour market policy that protects the interests of Cosatu’s main constituency. Or little progress that does not have to be fought for in the streets, often against the ANC government.
Cosatu warns more than once in its political report on the state of the alliance that, since the ANC’s elective congress at Nasrec, “the situation does not necessarily represent a qualitative positive change although there have been indications of such a potential given improved interactions”. The federation also reiterates that the alliance will collapse if it and the SACP continue to be sidelined.
Addressing these fears, Ramaphosa told Cosatu at its congress that the time had come for the federation to bring its ideas to the table, not only on how to grow the economy, but also to ensure that its proposals translate into sustainable jobs. He is hosting a jobs and investment summit in October, to which Cosatu has been challenged to contribute concrete, workable 21st-century ideas. The invitation is quite a challenge for an organisation that has become so inwardly focused because of its political and organisational weaknesses.
And therein lies perhaps the deepest challenge. Cosatu concedes that, without its own programme of organisational renewal, it will have very little impact on ANC or government policies or ability to protect the rights of workers in a rapidly changing environment.
The new leadership will soon convene an urgent special central executive committee commission on the future of work, as the technological and social changes of the fourth industrial revolution wreak havoc on the traditional notions and assumptions about work and jobs.
But if the federation’s affiliates want to survive the seemingly long-haul economic slump and a job market that is fast becoming more mechanical, automated and technologically driven, Cosatu’s new leadership will have to make some major adjustments and begin to think creatively.
So far though, Cosatu has responded to the very notion of a fourth industrial revolution by relying on familiar tropes and language: it’s all an elaborate and anti-African plot by the imperialist capitalist forces, or at best a threat to “our jobs”. But unfortunately “our jobs” are all up in the air whether we like it or not. This holds true whether we are rock drillers, machinists, cashiers, lawyers or graphic artists.
The 21st-century world of work will not wait for Cosatu to get its house in order. Judging by the fact that union penetration in the workplace now hovers around 26% and declining, nor will the South African workforce.
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg research and