Split that need not have happened
The criminal actions of the South African Communist Party have severely weakened Cosatu, writes Peter Manson
The Congress of South African Trade Unions edged a step closer to formally becoming two separate organisations last week, with the decision of the Cosatu central executive committee (CEC) to dismiss its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi.
The crisis began when Vavi was suspended from his post in August 2013 - ostensibly over an affair with a Cosatu office worker, but in reality the South African Communist Party leadership wanted rid of a man who had become far too critical of the ruling African National Congress over its attacks on union members and the working class as a whole. For the SACP tops, the tripartite alliance - which links the SACP and Cosatu in support of the bourgeois ANC - is a matter of dogma which cannot be challenged.
And, since just about all Cosatu unions have traditionally been dominated by members of the SACP, the party’s opinion is not unimportant. The SACP, which claims to have well over 150,000 members, has served to demobilise the masses with its absurd claim that the current period of neoliberal privatisation and capitalist stabilisation represents a “national democratic revolution” that is the “most direct route to socialism” in South Africa.
But Vavi, an SACP oppositionist, had struck a chord and his suspension in August 2013 led to calls for a Cosatu special congress - not just to reinstate Vavi, but to reverse the federation’s pro-ANC positions. The Cosatu constitution states that a special national congress (SNC) must be called if a third of affiliates demand one, and back in 2013 nine of the then 19 Cosatu unions did indeed demand an SNC. But the leadership around president Sidumo Dlamini, a staunch SACP/ANC loyalist, prevaricated, quoting “practicalities” and “expense”, until finally, in February 2014, the CEC for the first time came out with a straight ‘no’ - without even attempting to justify this blatant contravention of its own constitution.
This point-blank refusal served to deepen the divide, with several unions - including the largest of all, the 330,000-strong National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) - stiffening their newly found anti-ANC resolve.
In December 2013 a Numsa congress voted unanimously to break from the ANC and to cease paying the union’s regular levy to the SACP. This was not without significance, since Numsa’s previously SACP-loyal leadership had played a central role in the replacement in 2007 of sitting ANC president Thabo Mbeki by Jacob Zuma. If there had been any doubts about its rebellion against the SACP, these would have been dispelled when Numsa delegates voted at the same congress to set up a campaigning, anti-neoliberal “United Front”, not to mention a “Movement for Socialism”, with the eventual aim of establishing a workers’ party to rival the SACP.
Meanwhile, Numsa had also launched a legal challenge to Vavi’s suspension and in April 2014 it was overturned by the high court in Johannesburg, to the consternation of Dlamini and the remaining loyalists. SACP control over Cosatu was now looking distinctly insecure and so the party decided it had to act. To the disquiet of the ANC leadership, which was hoping that somehow Cosatu could be held together and kept in its entirety within the alliance framework, the SACP embarked upon a splitting course - Numsa had to be expelled if the party was to keep control over the federation.
The fact of the matter is that Cosatu affiliates under SACP hegemony are hobbled when it comes to pursuing pay claims and improvements in working conditions - though, of course, as I write, several loyalist-led public-sector unions are on the verge of major strike action. But workers in South Africa want something more than the crumbs delivered by the SACP trade union leaders. And it is their rising expectations that lie at the heart of the split in Cosatu and has led to a whole string of trade union leaders demanding some sort of independent working class political agenda outside the ANC-led popular front.
That is why Numsa had to go. A number of charges were cobbled together - not least that Numsa had acted against Cosatu “policy” by withdrawing support from the ANC! Realising the paper-thin nature of such a charge (it surely meant that Cosatu policy could never be changed, for affiliates adopting a different line on any major question would automatically be excluded), the loyalists claimed that Numsa was guilty of poaching members, since it had expanded its membership base beyond the metal industry and had been recruiting miners, for instance, thus breaking the principle of ‘One industry, one union’. Here they were on firmer ground - and, of course, they could overlook the minor matter of just about every other union behaving in exactly the same way (which is unsurprising, since the main problem does not arise from several unions trying to recruit the same workers, but from the fact that more than 70% of all workers belong to no union). Numsa was duly expelled in November 2014.
Despite this, for a while Vavi attempted to act as conciliator, trying to persuade the SACP loyalists to accept that the strong differences within the federation could all be contained and that both loyalist and oppositionist-led unions could be brought back together - seven unions that were in sympathy with Numsa had stopped attending Cosatu meetings, demanding the metalworkers’ reinstatement.
But there was no turning back for the loyalists. Just to rub home the point, Dlamini indicated that a tiny, pro-SACP split from Numsa, the Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa (Limusa), whose claimed membership is 1,670 (!), would be accepted as an affiliate. So much for ‘One industry, one union’!
At this point, Vavi decided to end his cooperation with the loyalists and earlier this year joined the seven oppositionist unions in their boycott of central executive committee meetings. The loyalists had the excuse they needed - by refusing to attend the CEC at the beginning of March, Vavi was failing in his duties as general secretary. They demanded he explain himself before a special CEC scheduled for March 30-31.
On March 29, Vavi announced in a lengthy statement the reason why he would not be present. He said he had attended a CEC in November “on the understanding a unity initiative would be taken, so that the seven unions boycotting it would change their mind and attend. But the hard-line anti-Numsa unions would not hear of it and there was no such initiative.” Furthermore,
a number of affiliates [stated] that they could not attend the meeting unless it was linked to a unity process, inter alia involving the ANC ... Accordingly and regrettably, I will also not attend the upcoming special CEC on March 30-31 too ... I am not convinced that the important task of building unity is on the agenda of this special CEC ... Adopting a ‘business as usual’ approach when a significant section of our unions are no longer participating ... is irresponsible.
Vavi went on:
I will not attend meetings of the federation whose sole purpose is to pursue the factional agenda of one grouping, no matter how powerful they may think they are. Legitimating such meetings is tantamount to giving credibility to the idea that these are genuine forums to resolve problems. In reality such meetings are only mechanisms to annihilate opposition to the agenda of a powerful faction, parading under the semblance of constitutionality.1
Interestingly, in his pre-CEC statement Vavi revealed the disastrous state of Cosatu’s finances following the expulsion of Numsa. The ridding of a political nuisance came at a price - the abrupt end of a source of regular income in the form of the affiliation fee of a union with 330,000 members (Numsa claims that its membership has since passed the 350,000 mark, by the way). Vavi declared:
Cosatu is currently living R300,000 [£17,000] a month beyond its income. Cosatu staff could only be paid in February and March by raiding the political fund (designated for other purposes). This source will dry up soon. Campaign activities - the core of our work - will be curtailed, and there is the likelihood of having to go with a begging bowl to our class enemies for money to hold a congress later this year.
This is a recipe for a complete loss of independence. Our research institution, Naledi, and the Chris Hani Institute will have to close down, the Shop Steward magazine will have to close down and ... Cosatu House can’t be maintained.
Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini was furious, accusing Vavi of irresponsibility for making public the federation’s financial state. You would never find company directors behaving in that way - “A CEO of a company can’t go public and brag about that situation.” Somewhat contradictorily, he said of Vavi: “He knows he is lying.” In any case, he “wanted to create that situation. He knows he did almost everything to paralyse us from inside .... if he was at the centre of Cosatu, he should then be saying he is also responsible for that situation if it does exist.”2
Everyone knew what would happen at the special CEC in the absence of the oppositionist unions and Vavi himself. It decided with only one vote against to immediately dismiss the general secretary. “By not coming to this CEC to explain his conduct,” declared Vavi’s deputy, Bheki Ntshalintshali, “he therefore waived his right to put his side of the story.”
That seems reasonable as far as it goes, but Vavi countered: “I have no doubt that the dismissal is unfair and illegal. I have been dismissed without a hearing conducted by an independent chairperson.” And socialist journalist Terry Bell claimed: “... the central executive committee ... has no constitutional authority to finally dismiss, suspend or expel any office-bearer or affiliate; only a national congress may do that.”3
This seems a little dubious to me. Surely any organisation must have the right to act against one of its officers who is failing to carry out tasks for which they were elected and for which they are paid - ie, not attending and reporting to that organisation’s leading committee. To say that is not to side with the loyalists, of course, whose motives were primarily political and clearly undemocratic.
But Vavi was not the only one who had to clear out his desk. On the same day that the decision to dismiss the general secretary was announced, Cosatu’s national spokesperson, Patrick Craven, announced his resignation. He could not “defend the indefensible”, he said. This came as a surprise to many people, including this writer - personally I had assumed that Craven was an unquestionable loyalist, having read his name at the top of every emailed Cosatu bulletin or announcement for as long as I can remember.
The loyalists’ contempt for democracy is, of course, symbolised by their unconstitutional refusal to countenance a special national congress. Regular congresses are held only once every three years and the next one is due in September of this year. But, on the same day that the sacking of Vavi was announced, president Dlamini confirmed that there would, after all, be an SNC. It would be held in June - just two months before the regular congress and almost two years after it was first demanded!
A chance for the oppositionists to win back control? Not a bit of it. Numsa is no longer an affiliate and so would not be allowed to attend. In Numsa’s absence, it seems certain the loyalists will have a majority and will endorse the CEC decisions regarding both Numsa and Vavi. The expulsion of the metalworkers is, of course, very convenient from a purely logistical point of view - with Numsa present it seems probable that the loyalists would have been defeated.
In fact the oppositionists now seemed to have all but given up on Cosatu. In the words of Vavi,
We are now trying one last-ditch attempt to reclaim the organisation from below, by mobilising the members to assert their rights to control their movement. If this fails, history will record that we tried everything in our power.
… If all avenues are closed, we will have no option but to walk away. But this is ultimately a huge decision, which only the members, and workers more broadly, can make. If members decide there is nothing further that can be done to rescue the organisation, I will respect that decision.
However, the boycott indicates that the oppositionists have decided there is no possibility of ‘reclaiming the organisation’. Surely that is what lies behind it. A pity, because in my view there was a strong possibility of defeating the loyalists in the long term. In just about every loyalist union there has been disquiet against the leadership’s pro-ANC line, with oppositionists coming to the fore in various regions and committees.
For its part, the United Front originally sponsored by Numsa stated that it “regards this decision as the final nail in the regrettable terminal decline of what was once a mighty, principled, independent and militant federation of workers’ trade unions”.4
The SACP has been strangely muted in its response to the latest developments. In its post-CEC statement it made vacuous noises about Cosatu’s “serious problems of maintaining unity, cohesion and discipline” and declared that the “latest divisive developments facing the federation are undesirable, and cannot be a cause for celebration”.
The only criticism of Vavi came in this implied form:
Workers should recognise the dangers inherent in the development of the cult of personality and the undermining of the fundamental principles of internal democracy, collective leadership, discipline and self-discipline, constructive criticism and self-criticism.5
But the SACP’s reticence is understandable. It knows that this “undesirable” splitting outcome is the direct result of its own criminal actions. Rather than break with the ANC popular front and stop excusing ANC neoliberalism, it was quite prepared to see Cosatu cleaved in two.
And now the SACP leadership seems to be inhabiting a fantasy world. According to national spokesperson Alex Mashilo, writing in the SACP’s online journal, Umsebenzi, on three occasions in March
President Jacob Zuma emphasised the necessity for socialism, and the superiority of socialist values over the ruthless system of capitalist exploitation. History will record this as having been the first time since our April 1994 democratic breakthrough that the president of the republic and the ANC has explicitly supported socialism in any way.6
So Zuma ‘supports’ socialism. Strange that the bourgeois media failed to report this bombshell, isn’t it?