Labour Watch

Divorce between organised labour and political parties

Zwelinzima Vavi, labour’s man of the moment

ANC-factionalism had the marriage between South African trade unions and political parties in trouble since early 2015. The divorce has now become final.

While the labour federation, Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) since the 1980s played a key role in the liberation struggle and entered into a formal alliance with the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) in government since 1994, that relationship is now coming to a final close. The “settle agreement” is in process.

After a period of rising tensions, the breakup really started at the end of 2014 with the expulsion National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) from Cosatu, followed in March 2015 when charismatic then general secretary of Cosatu, Zwelinzima Vavi, being expelled  and final expulsion following in November 2015. .

This weekend saw the formal establishment of a new trade union, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), with Vavi as general secretary and Mack Tshabalala of the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) as president.

NUMSA was the biggest Cosatu member. Cosatu has since seen its membership shrink from around 2,2 million in 2012 to 1.8 million by November 2015 and around one million presently.

ANC Cosatu relationship

While Cosatu is still formally part of the governing alliance, it has become a partnership in name only. The clearest indication of this, is that its present president, Sdumo Dlamini, is facing the prospect of a motion of no-confidence from his own federation for attending an ANC birthday bash for President Jacob Zuma after it called on Zuma to step down as president.

Also read: ANC has gone into full self-destruct mode

The relationship has been in trouble for some time as tensions rose over the numerous scandals Mr Zuma got himself involved in and over policy matters, like the level of an enforced minimum national wage.

The final parting of ways could come as soon as June this year if the ANC cannot be persuaded to remove Mr Zuma from office at its policy conference, which at this stage seems unlikely.

New political/labour landscape

South Africa is presently experiencing the development of a totally new relationship between organised labour and political parties.

At the time of their expulsion from Cosatu, both NUMSA and Vavi held out the prospect of, besides a new labour federation, the establishment of a new workerist  political party.

The formal establishment of Saftu is the culmination of “principles” adopted at a subsequent labour Summit in April 2016, where there were already sings that the idea of a political party was falling by the wayside.

The first “principle” adopted at the summit, read: “Unions must be independent from employers (in the private and public sector) and from political parties. This does not mean that unions are apolitical.”

In its statement at the end of the weekend’s congress, it is stated: “At this historic Congress, we have asserted our independence and enshrined it in our decisions. We have insisted that we must be independent, but definitely not apolitical. On the contrary, being independent means that we have to be more ready to explain our positions, because these are rooted in the needs of the working class.“ (The full statement can be read on the Politicsweb website.)

In a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the latest developments in a research note to his clients, independent political analyst, Stef Terblanche writes:

“The formation of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), which this past weekend elected its leadership, is important for especially three reasons:

1.    “It continues the shifts in the labour landscape - the dividing up and realignment of organised labour in South Africa - thus intensifying the competition for affiliates and worker members, and for dominance in specific industrial sectors, which will continue to have an evolving impact on labour relations, with specific economic impacts;

 2.    “Although claiming to be politically non-aligned, it creates a huge potential labour-based political constituency outside of the governing tripartite Alliance consisting of the ANC, COSATU (Congress of SA Trade Unions) and the SACP (SA Communist Party), a phenomenon shared by many African liberation movements whereby the labour wing of the movement eventually breaks away from and in opposition to the liberation-organisation-turned-new-governing-party; and

3.    “In the context of both the previous two points it is likely to indirectly become a factor in the decision-making of global credit rating agencies, as they have repeatedly listed South Africa’s unstable labour and political environments as key factors that have influenced their decisions on South Africa.”

(Readers who are interested to obtain the full research paper – which we can recommend – can contact Stef directly at  [email protected])

At least one political party immediately recognised the changed reality, the Economic Freedom Fighters, becoming the first party to communicate its “revolutionary solidarity” and best wishes to the new federation.


The new, more arms-length relationship developing between organised labour and political parties, is probably a much healthier one than the present, almost incestuous relationship between the ANC and Cosatu, making the federation both judge and jury with a conflict of interest in government structures.

The new situation is also better suited for the politics of coalitions on shared interests that is likely to emerge after the 2019 general election.


Also read: Is ANC starting to give up on surviving on its own?

                 ANC has gone into full self-destruct mode

by IB team

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