THE AFTERMATH of the COSATU special national conference, held in Johannesburg on the 13th and 14th of July, has split the labour movement in South Africa.
Expelled COSATU leader Zwelinzima Vavi made his analysis of the SNC in his speech at the opening of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) shop stewards elections, also in Johannesburg, on Saturday.
‘The COSATU that was founded in 1985 is falling apart and splinter unions are growing as a result,’ the former COSATU general secretary said. ‘The reality we are facing is that the COSATU as we knew it before is being fragmented. Splinter unions are springing up, as we’ve never seen before. These comrades are gone, they are not coming back.
‘The SA Democratic Teachers Union currently is splitting. It appears that the whole of the EC is going to go along with chunks of the Free State and Gauteng. The banking union Sasbo is splitting. This is what is happening in our federation, like it or not,’ he said.
Vavi said the federation’s leaders did not thoroughly understand the history of COSATU. If they did, they would not have taken the risk of sowing divisions by expelling NUMSA. How can this happen at a time when we need the unity for the working class? You must now know that you have dismissed the biggest union, the fastest growing.’
Vavi said the other two alliance partners, the SA Communist Party and the African National Congress, had lost their moral authority. Anybody who is refusing to see the writing on the wall does not want to. A new federation is being created in front of our eyes.’
Vavi called on workers to address these questions at a workers’ summit. Those who believe in the independent, militant, socialist orientated, anti-capitalist trade unions – we will say to them come to the workers’ summit to address the future of the workers in our country. That summit must now decide what that future holds.’
The shop stewards elections are taking place in accordance with the constitutional provisions of NUMSA. Their launch took place amidst the serious political and organisational paralysis threatening the implosion of COSATU, after its Central Executive Committee took the divisive decision to remove General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi from his elected position, and expel more than 365,000 workers in NUMSA from the federation they built for many decades.
For three years now COSATU has been consumed in boardroom battles, whilst on the other side of the fence, workers are being brutalised willy-nilly by employers through redundancies in order to maximise profits, and other workers, particularly at MTN have been involved in a month-long strike, without any form of practical solidarity and support from COSATU and its affiliated unions.
The elections were launched under the strategic theme ‘Engineer your Future! Elect a fighting shop steward to defend your rights and advance the NUMSA Moment’. The elections launch affirmed NUMSA’s founding traditions and principles, as their statement said, ‘as a worker-controlled, independent, democratic, non-sexist and non-racial and activist-based revolutionary trade union.
‘Since our inception many years ago, dating back to our years as Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU, founded in 1973), we have remained true to these founding values which have made us a revered “School of Excellence” for other trade unions, here at home and beyond our borders. We are making this claim with the sincere humility it deserves!
‘The launch takes place within the context of massive and qualitative growth of this glorious union … This massive growth has placed an enormous responsibility on the union as a whole, particularly on its elected leaders and officials, to work tirelessly in providing quality service to our members, and strengthening our organisational capacity to respond to the many demands of workers drawn from our existing sectors, as well as from the new sectors that we now organise, since the extension of our scope of organising.’
COSATU’s special national congress of the preceding week was to create ‘unity and cohesion’, but the federation’s affiliates are now divided on whether it was a success or a waste of time. The call to hold it was made by a third of COSATU’s affiliates in support of the reinstatement of expelled general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and NUMSA.
The group wanted the congress to elect new leaders and to discuss the issues pertaining to Vavi and NUMSA’s expulsion. However, it was decided by the central executive committee (CEC), that the congress would not discuss these matters, but would focus on rebuilding unity and cohesion. Vavi and NUMSA would get the opportunity to appeal their expulsions at the ordinary congress in November, they said.
Unprecedentedly, on the Monday, COSATU closed its congress to the media and spent more than nine hours debating credentials and the way they should be voted on. This was over a rival metalworkers union, Limusa, and second deputy president Zingiswa Losi, a renegade from NUMSA. Attempts by unions to raise the issue of Vavi and NUMSA from the floor were also unsuccessful during the second day of congress.
Following the congress, COSATU President Sidumo Dlamini claimed that it had been successfully convened and that the trade union federation was still alive. He said that debates were robust and open. This was contradicted by the views of some unions.
On Thursday, the NUMSA-supporting Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) General Secretary Katishi Masemola said his union felt that the congress was not managed properly, especially when it came to the voting process. ‘Voting through a show of hands is nothing but block voting.’ Masemola claimed that a vote by show of hands ensured that those who would have voted differently to their leaders would be too scared to do so.
SA Football Players Union (SAFPU) General Secretary Thulaganyo Gaoshubelwe agreed, saying COSATU’s constitution was ignored. Anything and everything we wanted to raise, people said no, we can only talk in November. The constitution was flushed down,’ he said.
SA Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu) General Secretary Bones Skulu said unity in COSATU was far from being achieved. People can talk about unity, but they’re just papering over the cracks.’
He criticised President Dlamini for attacking affiliates during his opening address, calling on unions which were supporting Vavi and NUMSA to ‘free yourselves’ from their grip. Skulu said the congress was ‘more or less’ a waste of time and money, although the union was not thinking of leaving COSATU. He also dispelled any rumours that some were looking at starting an alternative federation.
‘Like FAWU said, we are members of COSATU, we can never leave COSATU. We will fight until COSATU is correct. Sanity will prevail.’ On the other hand, the unions against Vavi and NUMSA hailed the special congress as a success.
SA Transport and Allied Workers Union General Secretary Zenzo Mahlangu said the congress went well and felt that those who were for Vavi’s and NUMSA’s expulsion were vindicated. ‘Vavi and NUMSA never found any kind of support and given the circumstances we knew that the agenda was to collapse the congress, and it didn’t collapse,’ he said.
The National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union and the SA Democratic Teachers Union shared SATAWU’s sentiments that the congress was a success. We think we have laid a firm ground for us to move on with the unity and cohesion of the organisation,’ SADTU General Secretary Mugwena Maluleke said, just before Vavi’s speech that SADTU was splitting. We should not say we regret the time, or wasted money. It was necessary.’