Labour Watch

Organised labour landscape sets tone for transition


South Africa’s organised labour landscape has been a front runner in the radical structural transition of the South African national household for some time now.

While the escalation of ANC disintegration post the 3 August local government elections continues and the Zuma faction’s push for control over state resources intensifies, profound developments on the organised labour front barely make a blip on the public radar screen.

Last week not only saw another trade union, the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu), disengage from the once all-dominating trade union federation, Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), but a public spat broke out between two of the new forces on the labour scene.

After former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi formally announced the establishment of a new labour federation, another new player on the block, the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) of South Africa (established in February this year) accused Vavi & Co of being mere copycats with their stance on independence from any political party.

Vavi immediately hit back and said if NTUC felt they share the same ideals (of the to be established federation, they should join it. “All those that identify with our principles should join forces with us, instead of throwing stones at us,” he said.

Vavi was expelled from Cosatu in March last year after the expulsion of the federation’s then, and still South Africa’s biggest, union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) in November 2013 – a step Vavi opposed.

This was also the start of the breakup of Cosatu, one of the members of the ANC’s “governing alliance”, which would develop into a precursor of what is happening within the ANC itself at present.

In July last year, describing the developing new phase on the political scene as “Humpty Dumpty” time for the alliance, we wrote: “The governing alliance, led by the ANC, which has played a crucial role in South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy, is broken and the realignment of the political scene has started in earnest.”

We also foresaw that “some very challenging times lie ahead, not only for the component parts of the tripartite alliance, the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), but also for the country as a whole.

“The socio-political landscape of the country is undergoing fundamental changes. How constituent parts of the alliance and other political actors manage to adapt to the new environment will determine if and how they will survive.”

Developments within Cosatu

Cosatu did not fare too well in adapting to the new situation. The expulsion of Numsa and Vavi followed on a bitter factional battle within the federation, in which nine unions supported Numsa and opposed its expulsion.

Breakaway groups from Cosatu affiliates established new unions and will to join the new federation to be established by Vavi and others in two weeks’ time. More than 50 unions representing more than a million workers are expected to join. The loss of the historical solid election support of unions probably cost the ANC dearly in the local election.

At the time of its expulsion Numsa alone represented about 320 000 members who will be going with it to the new federation. At the end of August, the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) decided to disaffiliate from Cosatu. They will also be joining the new labour federation.

It looks very much as if the days of Cosatu (now reduced to a federation mainly representing public sector unions) as the largest labour federation in the country are over.

The politically independent stance of the future, which is foreseen by both the Vavi- driven federation and NTUC, would make for a much more nuanced issue-driven political stance from the organised labour sector in the country.

Lessons for the ANC

The factional battles raging inside the ANC, and in what has in practice remained of the alliance – with the third member, the South African Communist Party, increasingly taking dissenting positions – seem to be a replay of what has, process-wise, happened to Cosatu.

Unless it can pull an unlikely rabbit out of its hat, it could, like Cosatu, become seriously challenged as the majority party, come the general election of 2019. The South African socio-political scene is in the process of a major transition to a new era of much more fluidity in the relationship between competing interests and economic and ideological aspirations.

In this regard the organised labour sector has been setting the tone for some time. But, note, in the meantime a wave of strikes and/or protest/picket actions have hit South Africa during this year’s annual wage negotiations season.

Don’t expect the economic and political terrains to be any different in the short to medium terms.

by Piet Coetzer

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