Zwelinzima Vavi: new federation

Splits and divisions continue

With Cosatu tied body and soul to the ANC, writes Peter Manson, it looks like it will soon be faced with yet another rival federation

As expected, last week’s triannual gathering of the Congress of South African Trade Unions voted overwhelmingly to ratify both the expulsion of the country’s largest union, the 350,000-strong National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), and the dismissal of Cosatu’s former general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi.

As regular readers will know, the reason for Numsa’s expulsion - driven by South African Communist Party hacks like Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini - was because Numsa had decided that, as far as the support for the African National Congress was concerned, enough was enough. The ANC-led triple alliance (the other two components being, of course, Cosatu and the SACP) is supposed to be guiding South Africa’s ‘national democratic revolution’, which the SACP leadership insists is the “most direct route” to socialism in South Africa. In reality the ANC government, including its raft of SACP ministers, has overseen two decades of neoliberalism and Thatcherite privatisation.

But for the SACP loyalists it was sacrilege to withdraw support from the ANC, and Numsa’s overwhelming decision to do so meant that it had to be turfed out of Cosatu. Similarly, Vavi - himself originally an SACP placeman - had become far too critical of the government and he too had to be given the boot. In his case an affair with a Cosatu employee served as the excuse, while for Numsa it was claimed that the real reason was the poaching of members of other unions - or, more accurately, workers who could have been recruited to other Cosatu affiliates.

In fact Cosatu acting general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali, in his organisational report to last week’s congress, conceded that “organising across sectors” is a “widespread problem” in the federation. In other words, Numsa was doing exactly what all the other affiliates have been trying to do too: winning unorganised workers to join a union - any union.

To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, there are three main federations and no fewer than 179 registered unions. Cosatu affiliates account for 1.8 million of 3.7 million total union membership, in a country where there are between 13 and 14 million workers - let us leave aside the fact that the official unemployment rate stands at 26.4%. To be brief, only just over a quarter of employed workers belong to a union - even though they have 179 to choose from! So the main problem is hardly one of competition between contending unions.


Cosatu’s pre-congress organisational report rather understated things when it noted that its “founding principle” of “One country, one federation” had “not been achieved”. The two rivals are the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa), with its largely white-collar membership, and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), which poses to the left of Cosatu, advocating a mixture of workerism and black nationalism.

The organisational report went on to state:

The question that must be posed is, why are there so many trade unions in the country, yet only 27% of the workforce is unionised? A possible answer to this question is that … the majority are not there to genuinely represent the interests of their members, but the financial interests of their leaders.1

That is correct - up to a point. Unions everywhere spawn a bureaucracy, whose members develop a direct interest in the maintenance of the capitalist status quo - the bureaucrats make their living through their special position as intermediaries between workers and employers, and the maintenance of this intermediary role becomes for them an end in itself.

But Cosatu unions, just like those of the other federations, are dogged by this too - not to mention the corruption of a self-serving leadership. And, in the case of Cosatu, the bureaucracy seeks to advance its own interests through the alliance with the ANC - which helps to explain why so many end up as ANC officials, including at the very top, not to mention capitalists themselves. This genre is typified by the current deputy president of both South Africa and the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, who was once a militant leader of the anti-apartheid struggle and the first general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Of course, the bureaucracy has to go through the motions, and so in a press statement issued last month Cosatu implied that Numsa’s expulsion was one of the “historic, unfortunate, but unavoidable events” that had befallen the federation recently. It added: “As Cosatu we want to make it clear that we are still committed to the principled unity of the workers and we will continue to ensure that Cosatu remains the home of all workers of SA.”2

But for Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim, things are straightforward: once Cosatu was a principled working class formation, but today “our federation has been stolen by the ruling class, by a leadership whose first loyalty is no longer to the workers who voted for them, and pay their salaries, but to their allies in government, to the ruling party and their personal financial and careerist interests”.3

Unfortunately, however, despite the fine words about ‘unity’, Numsa, like Cosatu itself, has in practice given up on a single federation. Jim announced before the Cosatu congress that Numsa and Vavi were “not going to submit appeals against their expulsion and dismissal”, because, apparently, this “would give legitimacy to the proceedings”. While he recognised “the problem of fragmentation of the trade union movement”, he nevertheless declared that “the formation of new breakaway unions is understandable and welcome”.

Jim stated: “... our biggest challenge is to build a new, militant, independent, democratic and united workers’ movement.” Previously the idea had been to establish a new workers’ party, which would start contesting elections this year, and Numsa set up an organisation called the United Front to further that aim. But the UF never got off the ground, thanks mainly to divisions amongst the Numsa leadership itself, and now it has completely given up, its website abandoned.4

So now Numsa, says Jim, is backing “the call for a Workers Summit, involving the broadest possible number of independent and representative workers’ federations and unions, including Cosatu and all its affiliates”. Some hope! In reality this is a call for a rival union federation - it is possible that Fedusa and Nactu may come on board, but Cosatu?

Upholding the NDR

Meanwhile, demonstrating that the triple alliance is alive and well, the Cosatu congress was addressed by president Jacob Zuma, whose speech represented an attempt to shore up the idea of the SACP’s ‘national democratic revolution’ (NDR).

Knowing his audience, Zuma spoke in the language of the NDR: “We operate under capitalism ... the crisis after crisis of the system will affect you, whether you like it or not, because ... it affects everyone within ... the global system that is operating. In other words, it’s a class-divided society.” However, “The ANC does not get rid of classes. It creates a situation where there should be some harmony within the living contradictions to try to balance things. You can’t go further.”5

He continued:

The SACP, on the other hand, is the vanguard party of the working class, advancing a socialist revolution aimed at creating a socialist system, which is characterised by the dictatorship of the proletariat. That’s what the party fights for. We are aware of it from the ANC and that party is aware of the ANC’s destination.

Interestingly, Zuma went on to expand on his thoughts about the word, “dictatorship”:

the capitalist class ... dictates and at times you don’t feel it ... It dictates everything every day ... Who decides the price of bread? Is there any meeting that sits and says now it must cost so much? It is dictated to by the capitalist class.

As you might expect, some commentators responded by stating that, far from a “dictatorship”, the “free market” was the highest expression of democracy.

But Zuma was not exactly condemning capitalism - he wants to see “a situation where there should be some harmony” between classes, after all. By contrast, the SACP is aiming for a different kind of dictatorship: the “proletariat dictatorship”, which would indeed aim to “get rid of class-divided society”. First “you socialise the means of industry, so that they belong to the people, not to individuals”, and this will eventually produce

the stage of the communist system, communist society. In other words, you have reached a classless society. That is the struggle that the reds are fighting - to get rid once and for all of class antagonism in the world. That’s what the Communist Party fights for.

Of course, Zuma was hardly advocating communism himself. As he explained, “we ought to pay sufficient attention to this question of the separate, but complementary, roles each alliance partner must play in accelerating the pace towards the creation of a society truly based on the Freedom Charter”. Yes, the ‘national liberationist’ Freedom Charter is what it’s about - and the role of the SACP is to keep the workers’ movement firmly tied to the current capitalist order, while pretending it will eventually lead to the communist future.

But all is not well in the alliance. In four of the nine provinces - the Free State, North West, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal - there are marked tensions between provincial SACP leaders and the local ANC hierarchy, caused first and foremost by the corruption that dogs the ruling party.

And the SACP is at odds with part of the ANC right, which wants to see Zuma succeeded by none other than his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, when he steps down in 2019. Dlamini-Zuma is currently chair of the African Union’s commission - I wonder how she got nominated for that job? But incredibly the SACP wants the aforementioned Cyril Ramaphosa to take over the top job. Yes, the current deputy president - director of several top companies, apologist for the Marikana massacre and one of the country’s richest men - should succeed Zuma in the eyes of the SACP.

But, with his background, like Zuma he should have no trouble turning on the appropriate revolutionary phrases when he is called to address Cosatu.



1. Quoted at www.bdlive.co.za/national/labour/2015/11/06/cosatu-numsa-aim-for-rival-federations.

2. www.cosatu.org.za/show.php?ID=11067.

3. http://firstthing.dailymaverick.co.za/article?id=72651#.Vl20mvnhDIU.

4. https://unitedfrontsa.wordpress.com.

5. www.cosatu.org.za/show.php?ID=11160.