/ 3 May 2019

It’s mayday for unions as May Day turnout disappoints

Sad reminder: Workers attended a May Day rally at Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium in Clermont township
Sad reminder: Workers attended a May Day rally at Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium in Clermont township, north of Durban, on Wednesday. However, the event was not as well attended as was hoped by the union federation, Cosatu. (Rajesh Jantilal/ AFP)

May Day rallies across the country showed that trade unions have lost their lustre and are no longer the political force they were a decade ago. Back then, the country’s largest union federation, Cosatu, helped propel former president Jacob Zuma to power.

READ MORE: Cosatu plans a shadow Cabinet

Cosatu held its May Day celebrations in Durban on Wednesday, hoping to drum up support for the ANC. KwaZulu-Natal has the country’s second-largest voter base and is key to the party’s electoral fortunes nationally.

The 6 500-seat Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium at Clermont township was almost full by the time President Cyril Ramaphosa took to the stage — more than two hours late.

READ MORE: Ramaphosa tells workers: ‘Our country rests on your shoulders’

But as the centrepiece rally on the most important day of the labour calendar, and a show of strength for the biggest union federation, the day was, at best, a sad reminder of just how badly the battle for control of the governing party and massive job losses have decimated the ANC’s alliance partner.

Insiders in the ANC also expressed their frustration to the Mail & Guardian about the rally being held in Durban, saying a more fitting build-up would have been to hold the rally in Gauteng, the country’s economic heartland and a province that the ANC risks losing come the May 8 elections. Ramphosa, ignoring the Durban heat in a black and red leather National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union jacket, praised Cosatu for its contributions, saying that successive ANC governments had entrenched worker rights and would continue to do so. Cosatu was the first out of the blocks in the alliance to support Ramaphosa in the race for the ANC presidency at the elective conference in Nasrec in 2017.

READ MORE: Why Cosatu believes Ramaphosa will save the ANC

Ramaphosa said that while many critics had predicted the death of Cosatu, it was “still alive”, relevant and a key partner to the ANC in its alliance. Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi said Cosatu was still a “fighting union” that remained relevant and would continue to take up worker issues. While there are significant challenges facing workers, there were still reasons to celebrate, she said.

Cosatu faces a challenge to its dominance over the labour space from the breakaway South African Federation of Trade Unions, led by its former general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. Its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, has formed a political party, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party, which is set to contest the upcoming polls.