South Africa: Pro-government faction attacks COSATU's Zwelinzima Vavi By Benjamin Fogel

12 April 2013 — Amandla!

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is in the midst of the biggest crisis in its 27-year history. This crisis has arisen from a South African Communist Party (SACP)-driven attempt to oust democratically elected COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, under the guise of corruption charges. The conflict’s roots are in longstanding political contradictions and ideological tensions between COSATU and its Alliance partners – the ruling African National Congress and the SACP. At stake is not only the leadership of COSATU, but its political and moral direction.

Zwelinzima Vavi is under attackfor being too critical and independent of the ANC government.

COSATU sources reveal that the anti-Vavi faction is an alliance between the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and elements of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). COSATU president Sidomu Dlamini leads this faction, which is in all likelihood driven by SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande and ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe.

Vavi’s allies are in the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the Food and Allied Workers Union, the South African Commercial and Catering and Allied Workers Union, the Democratic Nurses Organisation of South Africa, the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union and some smaller affiliates. He is also supported by neutral unions wanting to resist measures that might lead to a split. Most importantly, the majority of shop stewards in the federation largely oppose moves to oust him.

Another battle is ongoing between COSATU’s two most sizable affiliates, NUM and NUMSA, who represent opposing political and union traditions. NUM represents a COSATU tradition focused on securing a closer working relationship with the ANC. NUMSA is the descendent of COSATU’s “workerist” tendencies , focused on building democratic workers’ power on the shopfloor and critical of aligning unions too closely with the ANC. The tension between NUM and NUMSA has intensified as NUM’s popularity has reached an all-time low.

The anti-Vavi campaign

Vavi has been perhaps the most consistent and incisive critic of the ANC administration’s political trajectory within the Alliance. His condemnation of a “predatory elite”, criticism of the Nkandla project, attacks on the SACP’s decay and his own anti-corruption initiatives have not made him popular among the Alliance’s new paranoid and patronage-ridden ruling faction, which views his open debate and critical analysis as tantamount to rejection of the Alliance.

The weapon used by the campaign against Vavi has been leaks to the media, including allegations that he sold COSATU’s old building in Johannesburg for R10-million less than its market value and awarded a tender to a company that employed his step-daughter. No proof has been produced, yet journalists have become complicit in factional politics by uncritically publishing “stories” based on anonymous allegations.

A three-pronged inquiry into Vavi’s affairs has been set up: labour lawyer Charles Nupen heads up a political commission, former South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) president Petrus Mashishi will look into “organisational matters” and Sizwe Ntsaluba-Gobodo will assess COSATU’s administration and finances. The inquiry will report back before the next central executive committee (CEC) meeting in May.

Tellingly, the anti-Vavi campaign has so far been conducted behind closed doors, in typical SACP manner. Vavi’s power, on the other hand, relies on his ability to appeal directly to rank-and-file COSATU members. His greatest defence against the political witch-hunt lies in his capacity to mobilise workers and shop stewards.

Ironically, it is Vavi’s former allies in the 2008 deal to bring Jacob Zuma to power who have turned against him. The deal was designed to “overturn the 1996 class project” – the ANC’s lusty embrace of neoliberal macroeconomic policy. Although, without COSATU, Zuma might be sitting in a prison cell instead of the Union Buildings, COSATU has lost almost all the significant battles it has engaged in since Zuma’s 2009 election (from the youth wage subsidy to e-tolling and the attempt to ban labour brokering).


Veteran trade unionist Dirk Hartford told Amandla! that the crisis is rooted in the SACP’s longstanding desire to control the trade union movement by deploying its cadres in leading positions, thus centralising power in the hands of party leadership. This battle between the dominant Stalinist current in the SACP and diverse independent political currents has been ongoing since the 1980s.

The balance of forces in the COSATU leadership and CEC now favours the anti-Vavi, pro-SACP faction, despite the lack of popularity of COSATU president Dlamini and NUM general-secretary Frans Baleni among most COSATU workers. Vavi, on the other hand, retains mass support and is perceived as being willing to speak out of turn and put his neck on the line to defend workers’ interests.

The SACP leadership spends much of its time protecting Zuma’s image and his government’s policies from perceived enemies of the party, rather than acting on behalf of the working class. Vavi and NUMSA’s Irvin Jim’s critiques of these failures have earned them the wrath of Nzimande and Mantashe. The SACP receives a significant proportion of its funding from COSATU affiliates: for example, a few years back, NEHAWU was alleged to have used R20 million from membership dues to pay SACP salaries and hire venues for their events.

Many workers criticise developments like this, as this shop steward’s comments indicate:

The role of the SACP has gone down. It is compromised by having members in parliament. There is that reactionary clause 4.6 in the SACP that ensures this – which says if an SACP member is deployed by another organisation they are bound by the commands of that organisation. The SACP is in parliament because the ANC deployed them. If the ANC takes a reactionary position like supporting the Youth Wage Subsidy are you then bound by that?

Context of the crisis

This crisis also reflects structural economic shifts that have led to changes in the composition of the working class. Resulting challenges include difficulties of unionising the informal sector and the growth of precarious labour to the unions’ detriment. Furthermore, unions have failed to respond to the intensification of class struggle, particularly in mining and agriculture, often siding with employers rather than workers.

COSATU’s ability to protect workers’ interests has been called into question. As a SADTU shop steward put it, “COSATU is seriously lacking in dealing with issues facing workers. In the current conjuncture, COSATU is not being militant but serving as a policy advisor of the state. Leaders are no longer articulating the voice of members, but their own selfish, material voice.”

He added, “The likelihood is that those divisions are linked to groups with material interests. Underneath all this is a politics of accumulation. Our leaders have joined their government. Where is [Sydney] Mufamadi? Where is [Jay] Naidoo? Where is [Cyril] Ramaphosa? Where was he when Marikana [massacre] happened? They are sitting on the other side of the fence.”

Driven by workers, in 2010 the largest public sector strikes in South African history forced direct confrontation between the ANC government and COSATU, with much of COSATU leadership “missing in action” and some actively trying to call off the strike prematurely. Workers’ fury during the strike was directed against Zuma and his administration, which had promised a government more sympathetic to the working class. Despite Vavi’s comment that the federation would “no longer give the ANC a blank cheque” during elections, the Zuma government has now moved further away from the COSATU-backd resolutions passed at the last ANC conference in Polokwane.

According to political analyst Steven Friedman, an obsession with “high politics” and the ANC’s leadership wrangles has led to a lack of focus on labour issues and a lack of strategic direction in COSATU. Workers’ revolts directed at union leaderships are hardly unique. Friedman also points out that workers who have left COSATU may tire of the alternatives and eventually return, thereby forcing COSATU affiliates to reorganise in order to retain membership.

“Social distancing” – the growing gap between a rising bureaucratic caste of full-time shop stewards and union officials, on one hand, and the workers they are supposed to represent on the other – forms a major aspect of the crisis. Leaders who sit in plush, air-conditioned offices and live in middle-class suburbs are removed from the lived realities of workers. They increasingly lack the much-needed activist background and skills borne of years of struggle on the factory floor.

What is lost is the culture of “shopfloor democracy” that built COSATU in the first place. Union officials are often closer in experience and priorities to management than to the workers they claim to represent (although this certainly does not apply universally). The vast discrepancy between the pay packages of top union officials and average workers parallels inequality in the private sector as a whole. For example, NUM general secretary Frans Balen, earns some R116,000 monthly, while the average worker earns around R3000.

Social distancing has been a major factor in a growing number of breakaway unions, as union officials are simply unable or unwilling to take up workers’ demands. It was a key factor in last years’s mineworker strikes leading to the Marikana massacre. NUM has lost more than 100,000 members in Marikana’s aftermath. Many have joined the independent Association of Mining and Construction Workers Union (AMCU), set to become the majority union in the platinum sector. Likewise, social distancing is a major factor in the formation of the National Transport Movement, a popular breakaway from the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union.

The NUM’s leadership seems to be in denial about the reasons for its loss of members. Even though NUM itself has quite cosy relations with mining conglomerates, it blames its membership losses on an elaborate conspiracy by mining companies using AMCU as a front to “destroy and dislodge the mineworkers by promoting another union”.

COSATU, NUMSA, the NDP and neoliberalism

For years, senior ANC officials from Joel Netshitenzhe to Gwede Mantashe have insisted that “our revolution” (the “National Democratic Revolution”) is multi-class and cannot become “hostage to narrow sectoral interests” – that is, it cannot display a working-class bias. This stance contradicts the COSATU line, based on the Freedom Charter, that the ANC should be biased towards the poor and working class. The ANC’s new gospel is the National Development Plan (NDP), “the only game in town”, according to deputy president and billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa. The NDP, however, much like Zuma’s presidency, can camouflage itself enough to appeal to many different interests.

Elements of the NDP, in NUMSA general secretary Irvin Jim’s words, appear to be lifted directly from the right-wing Democratic Alliance (DA) policy documents calling for wage suppression and “market-driven growth”. According to NUMSA, the NDP is informed by “the ridiculous and false belief that South Africa’s mass poverty, unemployment and extreme inequalities can only be sustainably resolved by growing the economy”. This critique has triggered a rash of responses, including from arch-neoliberal Trevor Manuel, who claimed that Jim was possessed by an “infantile disorder”, and from Jessie Duarte, who accused NUMSA of being driven by “populism”.

In turn, NUMSA press releases directly challenged the SACP leadership and its role in COSATU. In response to a letter from SACP ‘sJeremy Cronin, for example, Jim takes public aim (on Politicsweb) at Cronin’s own apologetics and at the SACP’s attacks on NUMSA and Vavi. This document could, in effect, be read as a covert declaration of war on behalf of NUMSA against the SACP.

What now?

According to an unnamed COSATU senior official quoted in the Mail and Guardian, “Most leaders at the central executive committee level do not represent the views of the workers. [Vavi’s] strength lies in addressing worker issues. Most key leaders of the federation are in the SACP politburo or Central Committee. They are there to mortgage the federation. They are not in the executive committee to represent the workers, but the interests of the SACP. What made matters worse was the election of key COSATU leaders onto the ANC national executive committee.” Despite the noise made about unity at the top of COSATU and many unionists’ refusal to comment in public about deep divides within the trade union federation, it is clear that it has never been more vulnerable or fractured.

In Vavi’s words, “We cannot fight silly battles against one another when our house is on fire.” COSATU’s enemies are waiting like scavengers sensing weakness. This is a political battle and reflects an initiative taken by Zuma’s allies to purge the Alliance of the president’s critics in the run-up to next year’s national election.

At the centre of this crisis is an ideological struggle for the soul of the workers’ movement and its future direction. Regardless of the victor, while COSATU continues to put the ANC’s political aims before its own this crisis will remain unresolved. To protect their movement, COSATU workers must stand up and openly resist the attempt to remove Vavi and force the movement to toe the ANC line.

Amandla! editorial: Hands off COSATU!

April 11, 2013 — Amandla! — How ironic that the attack on COSATU comes from within. Ironic, but not unexpected. Supporters of the Jacob Zuma faction in COSATU want to get rid of general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi as he is too independent-minded and too critical of Zuma and the ANC government.

Vavi has been outspoken about the government’s failure to implement the Polokwane resolutions and its continued promotion of neoliberal pro-growth economics; he has shown his determination to fight the predatory corrupt elite through the formation of Corruption Watch. His independence in working closely with civil society formations like Section 27 and pursuing popular alliances through initiatives like the COSATU/Civil Society Conference of 2010 drew great anger from the SACP and the ANC.

Faced by the majority of COSATU delegates at the October 2012 Congress, they did not have the numbers to oust Vavi and shift COSATU into a transmission belt for ANC policy. A false truce was called.

However, in COSATU’s central executive committee (CEC) they thought they had the numbers – hence the extraordinary attack on the general secretary. Demanding his suspension on the grounds of alleged financial irregularity, the “neo-Stalinists” seek to put Vavi on the defensive and to remove him from the day-to-day running of COSATU. For the moment the plot has failed. Nevertheless, the struggle continues. A recent meeting of presidents and general secretaries of COSATU affiliates decided to set up a committee to facilitate discussions on complaints made against Vavi. Although this is a far cry from the inquisition that some on the COSATU leadership wanted, it provides a platform to keep Vavi on the back foot, especially in relation to charges of deviating politically and ideologically from COSATU’s agreed positions.

But who are THEY? They are lieutenants of the SACP’s general secretary Blade Nzimande and of ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe. Sdumo Dlamini, president of COSATU and current SACP politburo member, is one. He is strongly supported by NUM’s president and new chairperson of the SACP Senzeni Zokwana; by NEHAWU’s Fikile Majola, also a SACP politburo member; and by POPCRU’s president, Zizamele Cebekhulu, a leading member of the SACP.

They believe that the path to power is through the ANC, no matter how centrist or right-wing its policies. They have consequently liquidated the SACP into the ANC – and not just the ANC, but the state itself. They are the most loyal and resolute defenders of ANC President Jacob Zuma, regardless of Nkandlagate or any of his other follies. They consequently end up defending the indefensible: the Secrecy Bill, the Marikana massacre and even the Youth Wage Subsidy. They support the New Growth Path and the National Development Plan, despite the fact that the main neoliberal precepts that marked GEAR remain the foundations of these policies.

They speak of the national democratic revolution – by which they mean that the ANC is the true and only representative of the nation. Their so-called “NDR” is, in effect, nothing more than a cover for a continuing capitalist dispensation, presided over by a new elite.

Inside COSATU they fight against class-struggle positions. They oppose militant action against labour brokering and e-tolls. They are the leaders of those trade unions that have bought into collaboration with the employers through social contracts, share-equity schemes, productivity accords and so on. Their personal lifestyles (salaries, cars, housing, private schooling and the like) are not too different from the lifestyles of top state officials and private sector managers.

But the attack on COSATU from within has been enabled and orchestrated from without. Zuma’s promise of a left shift after Thabo Mbeki’s neoliberalism has been betrayed. At Mangaung the ANC nailed its colours to the mast of its BEE [black economic empowerment] backers – the Motsepes, Ramaphosas and so on. The adoption of the NDP with its pro-business policies requires an Alliance that does not rock the boat, that, in the words of the NDP, sacrifices or trades wages for jobs. But as minister Gordhan has made clear in his budget, the outlook for jobs is bad. So, to please the rating agencies, the government needs labour stability and compliance from COSATU. COSATU is supposed to accept wage moderation, corporate restructuring (read retrenchments), special economic zones and youth wage subsidies without too much of a fight.

However, a major part of the working class is not willing to accept this. Twenty years after the end of apartheid they are no longer willing to grovel for crumbs dropping from the table of social accords. That was the real meaning of the mineworker and farmworker strikes and the labour militancy of 2012. That was the significance of Marikana.

And substantial parts of COSATU, under pressure to deliver to their members, are no longer willing to suck in their stomachs and accept moderation. Even the business press cautions against sweetheart unionism. A Business Day editorial (December 12, 2012) cautions employers against being happy with compliant unionism:

Contrary to Mr. Dlamini’s claim, the tendency of COSATU’s leaders to desert the workers’ struggle and position themselves for cushy positions in the government, or as black economic empowerment beneficiaries, is precisely what is weakening the union movement. Some elements of business tend to think that a weaker union movement is a good thing. Perhaps. But this is extremely shortsighted. The shop-floor chaos that can be the consequence of union battles is often worse than a strike-prone labour force, and nothing demonstrates that better than the Marikana tragedy.

So Nzimande and Mantashe have taken it upon themselves, on behalf of the ANC leadership, to neutralise the militants in COSATU, to stop the rot and bring COSATU back into the fold. Hence Vavi is the first target of attack. Neutralise him and you arrest the drift of COSATU. And perhaps they have more significant targets in their radar. NUMSA, under Irvin Jim, has been a vehement critic of the Nzimande leadership of the SACP. He attacked Nzimande for taking a full-time position in government while remaining SACP general secretary. He has come out strongly against the National Development Plan, labelling it as neoliberal and a DA document. He also was one of the few leaders in COSATU who defended the Lonmin strikers and condemned the police for the Marikana massacre. This has further exacerbated tensions between NUMSA and NUM, COSATU’s two biggest unions. And it is these two poles that are at the epicentre of COSATU’s internal conflict.

All progressive forces – those that still believe that, through redistributing wealth, we can fight the post-apartheid trajectory towards growing inequality, joblessness, poverty, corruption and authoritarianism – must unite to defend COSATU.

In respect to the attack on Vavi, we must say an injury to one is an injury to all.

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