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Is Labour at a Turning Point? – Zwelinzima Vavi

Zwelinzima VaviSpeech by COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi to the SALB 40th Anniversary Event, Workers Museum

Is Labour at a Turning Point?

First let me say congratulations to the South African Labour Bulletin on its remarkable achievement of 40 years of uninterrupted critical publishing. Thank you for the honour of this invitation. For 40 years you have provided a voice to the voiceless; you exposed the brutality of the capitalist system that continue to brutally exploit workers; you have created space for policy debates that shaped the policies not only of trade unions but of the liberation movement as a whole.

The question posed to me today on the face of it is very easy to answer. I could simply say yes and sit down, because of course all of us in this room know that the future of COSATU is currently on a knife-edge, and that whatever happens to the Federation will have a massive impact on the labour movement as a whole. So yes, labour is at a turning point.

The big question is – which way will it turn?

But before I talk about the current crisis, and the possible scenarios going forward, I should share with you my analysis of the root cause of the current divisions in COSATU.

The root cause does not lie, as many shallow commentators would have it, in personal differences between the President of COSATU and me.  Neither does it lie in the outcome of an alleged discussion between President Zuma and Irvin Jim and Cedric Gina about my future – a discussion by the way, of which I have absolutely no knowledge.

The underlying differences within the Federation revolve primarily around two distinct views on the ANC government’s economic agenda and what this has meant to workers’ demands enshrined in the Freedom Charter.

The first view, as expressed through adopted resolutions in every National Congress and Central Committee since 1997, is that our government has pursued a neo-liberal economic agenda at the expense of the working class, and that this should continue to be vigorously challenged by COSATU. The opposing view is that this criticism is too harsh and the Federation should take a “nuanced” view. In the past two and a half years the latter view has found expression in the public arena.

What was our track record on economic policy before the current crisis? And what tensions has this generated both within the Federation and between the Federation and its Alliance partners?

In the early 1990s and running up to the first democratic election, COSATU advocated a Reconstruction and Development Programme, based on a radical transformation agenda. The idea gained wide support within the Alliance and was formally adopted as a key policy. We celebrated as our founding General Secretary was appointed as the RDP Minister.

But the Ministry was to be allocated almost no budget and it was to be isolated from other Ministries, which were packed with World Bank advisors. And after just over a year in power, in 1995 the ANC government unilaterally announced GEAR.

Practically, this meant the announcement of a neoliberal programme of privatisation of major state enterprises, the adoption of conservative policies on exchange control and inflation, and a rapid reduction of protective trade tariffs to below even what the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was demanding at the time.

While COSATU succeeded in stopping the privatisation of most major state owned enterprises, massive privatisation at municipal level proceeded. This was part of a project to promote the interests of both existing and emerging capital. While new small businesses were emerging, big business was restructuring and rationalising in order to maximise profits.

This led to the restructuring of the working class itself that saw a direct attack on decent jobs leading to massive casualisation and introduction of the concept of labour brokering. This, together with the rapid lowering of trade tariffs, resulted in an unbelievable loss of 1 million, largely private sector jobs in the period 1996 to 1999.

The political project underpinning this economic project was to convert the ANC from being a mass-based movement into a political party whose members had almost no access to decision making and who were to become a significant force only at election times.

The combined economic and political project was described by COSATU as”the 1996 Class Project”, with the then Deputy President Mbeki personifying it.

COSATU called its first post-1994 major general strike in May 1999 in protest against these policies and their impact on workers and the working class in general. This produced tensions with the ANC, with some leaders labelling COSATU populist, economistic, ultra-left, or agents of imperialism. But a united COSATU was able to win some concessions. There was some loosening of the conservative macro-economic policies, and alleviating poverty (though not inequality) was put at the centre of the 2004 ANC Manifesto.

While COSATU’s opposition to the 1996 Class Project was consolidating, other interests in the Alliance were starting to share an opposition to the leadership of President Mbeki, albeit for very different reasons. The 52ndConference of the ANC at Polokwane in 2009 produced what I called at that time a “coalition of the walking wounded” to remove President Mbeki from the Presidency of the ANC and replace him with comrade Jacob Zuma. This succeeded, but more importantly a number of resolutions were adopted which COSATU believed would chart the way forward to a new radical economic agenda.

The Polokwane resolutions were never really to see the light of day however. By 2010 the COSATU CEC observed that there was a paralysis in government caused by policy zigzags, the rise of tenderpreneurship and lack of decisive leadership. In this CEC paper we complained that the macro-economic policies of GEAR were still in place.

Concerns were raised that the progressive elements of the National Growth Path document were being ignored by the ANC government, and that little was being done to resource and vigorously implement the industrial policy action plan or restructure the colonial and apartheid economy. At the same time a criticism was raised against the General Secretary of the SACP for taking up a position in Cabinet, and thereby diluting the independence of the SACP.

The leaderships of the ANC and the SACP did not take kindly to the criticisms of the COSATU CEC.  Nevertheless at the ANC NGC of 2010 the Polokwane resolutions were reaffirmed.

It was at this point that differences within COSATU started to emerge, initially expressed in a debate on the National Democratic Revolution in the Central Committee in 2011. Agreement was eventually reached. But differences emerged on issues such as e tolls, the Protection of Information Bill and on the appointment of Mogoeng Mogoeng as head of the Constitutional Court. In each of these cases the differences were expressed only after the SACP had taken a contrary position to that taken by the COSATU CEC.

The political report to the 11th Congress in 2012 was consistent with COSATU’s long-standing critique of the 1996 Class Project and advanced the view that a radical break with the past was required in order to propel South Africa into a “Lula Moment” where poverty, inequality and unemployment were addressed head-on. Despite having been endorsed by the CEC, the report was brutally attacked by the leadership of some affiliates when it reached the Congress floor. The report was said to be too critical of the ANC government and too candid about COSATU’s internal weaknesses. Both the ANC and the SACP waded in to support this view.

The 11th Congress ended with an uneasy truce, but in the February 2013 CEC the leadership of the three biggest public sector unions accused the General Secretary of being “the elephant in the room” who was dividing the Federation from the SACP and the ANC. Unfounded allegations were also made that he benefitted on the sale and purchase of the COSATU buildings. A demand was put to establish a Commission of Enquiry into the General Secretary. This was defeated in favour of the establishment of a facilitated process to engage on the political, ideological, organisational and administrative differences within the Federation.

What unfolded after this is well known: – the failure of the facilitated process, the demand made by nine affiliates for a Special National Congress to resolve the areas of difference, the seven month suspension of the General Secretary, the appointment of an ANC Task Team, the expulsion of NUMSA on the 7th November, and the events of this week. Seven unions announced that they are suspending their participation to the CEC in protest to the dismissal of NUMSA.  The extent to which this period has seen an organisational paralysis is also widely understood.

It is no accident that one of the central (though not exclusive) fault lines has been that of the public sector unions vs. private sector unions. Workers in the manufacturing and services sectors have borne the brunt of capital’s brutality and government’s conservative economic policies. They have suffered job cuts and fragmentation through outsourcing and sub contracting. On the other hand their comrades in the public sector have seen relative employment stability.

This is not to say that life has been cushy for public sector workers – far from it. But their slightly different perspective on the world of work has made it not that difficult for some of their leadership to be persuaded that the state is an eternal ally, and that any class based opposition to the state neoliberal policies is counter revolutionary. This perspective shows up one of our own internal weaknesses – that we have paid insufficient attention to building class solidarity around concrete issues both within and beyond the Federation.

So where do we go from here?

The easy option might appear to be to simply walk away from it all by announcing a split and the formation of a new Federation, forged around a radical economic agenda combined with a determination to start afresh to entrench accountability and workers’ control. I know too many of you in this room this sounds like a good option. But this is not as easy or desirable as it might sound. In a context in which temperatures are running high, and fierce loyalties are felt in one direction or another, any split will produce multiple conflicts at every level.

We have 230 COSATU shop stewards locals across the country, which bring together shop stewards from all Affiliates. There is likely to be a tussle in every one of those, as shop stewards argue with one another about which faction to follow. We have eighteen Affiliates, each of which also has multiple structures from company shop stewards committees upwards. Workers in these structures will also argue about which direction to move. Some of their arguments will result in an escalation of the purging phenomenon we have already seen in some of our unions over the past few years.

Other arguments will spill over into violent confrontations. Rational discussion about the underlying differences might just go out the window. Questions such as: Should we re-organise ourselves along different demarcation lines? How do we advance broader trade union unity? How do we build class solidarity? Should we stay in the Alliance? are unlikely to come to the fore in these multiple conflicts. For those of us who lived through the wars on the ground in both Eastern Cape and KZN in the 1980s this is not an attractive thought.

The first prize then has got to be maintaining the unity of COSATU. At the same time we have to ensure that the space is opened to engage on the underlying differences that have emerged. That space can only exist if agreement is reached on a number of immediate and pressing issues.

The first has got to be NUMSA’s reinstatement in the Federation followed by the informal discussions amongst leaders as announced yesterday in a CEC press conference and the second is the holding of a Special National Congress sooner rather than later to honestly debate and resolve on the areas of difference. At the same time the Federation and its Affiliates will have to pay very special attention to work place organisation as part of reducing the distance between leadership and the rank and file that we already identified in our 2012 Congress. Such a focus will be critical in rebuilding unity from the bottom up.

There is also a need to agree what we mean by trade union independence. Some quarters have already described the whole idea as some sort of liberal notion, which is not class based. Others believe trade union independence is a prerequisite for asserting a working class specific agenda. There are many comrades who have noted the danger of transforming COSATU into a labour desk of the ruling party as a tendency that needs to be challenged and completely rejected. There are others who see the insistence on trade union independence as a threat that will undermine the Alliance.

Certainly in the context of the Alliance, and relations with Government, there is a need to explain that worker-controlled organisations cannot be subjected to the imposition of policies from other quarters. Worker control means that unions and federation must be given space to discuss all manner of issues, and must be able, and especially within their own democratic constitutions, make decisions and push for changes that they believe will move the working class forward.

The reactions to the NUMSA Congress decisions of December 2013 are a case in point. The amount of time and energy that has been spent attempting to prove that NUMSA is being divisive and anti-ANC and anti-Alliance shows how far we have to go to reassert the right of unions to decide their own policies. In raising this principle, I am not in any way endorsing or passing a judgment on NUMSA Special Congress resolutions. I am asserting the right of all workers to assemble, think, analyse their situation and take resolutions.

My argument is that worker control and trade union independence are two sides of the same coin of workers’ power. One without the other means that we have no currency to negotiate or campaign.

Let us remind ourselves that workers’ power is based on the ability to forge unity around class based demands, and then to be able to mobilise our members to take them forward. But if those demands are not forged at the base of our organisations, and reflect the real and pressing needs of the working class, borne from their own day to day experience, then it will be impossible for workers to have ownership of the demands, and a willingness to fight for them.

This then poses the absolute necessity of trade union democracy. Whatever happens over the next few months inside COSATU, the issue of reasserting trade union democracy and accountability within COSATU affiliates needs urgent and careful attention.

We simply cannot have a situation where a small group of leaders decide everything, or take actions, which undermine trade union principles and worker unity. We cannot have a situation where Unions say one thing in the public arena, say for example on the need to tackle corruption and then refuse to be accountable in their own unions. We cannot complain about the gap between the rich and the poor, if trade union leaders are living like royalty while their members do not receive a living wage. We cannot escape these contradictions.

They will come and haunt us, but worse, workers will begin to see their leaderships as not part of the solution, but part of the problem! Who can deny that the dilution of internal democracy in our movement has contributed to the diminishing of our power, and that’s why it must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Unity then is not something that must be at any cost. If we are wedded to unity for its own sake we will run the risk of sliding rapidly into a state of yellow unionism. Such a form of unionism will see us becoming less, not more accountable to workers. It will see us narrow our line of sight, and will see us becoming tamer in both our economic and political demands. We will become a shadow of our former selves and will eventually slip into mediocrity and stagnation. The possibility of broader trade union unity based on a militant and fighting agenda will be lost for many years to come.

We have a small window of opportunity right now to find the path back to a united militant, and hopefully bigger and broader COSATU. The fate of the Federation now more than ever is in the hands of the Affiliates. It rests on them to open up the discussion in their own ranks, to seek mandates, and to forge a new path for all workers.

Should the chosen path prove not to be a united COSATU, we will all have to do everything in our power to prevent a slide into multiple conflicts. We will have to put our faith in the power of workers to re-build what we have lost.

There are so many other issues that we could address. What I have done is to try and elaborate on a pressing few. I am grateful to the SALB for always providing a critical space, free of hectoring or rigid ideological barriers that prevent honest discussion from taking place. I hope what I have touched on today will be taken up in the SALB and engage many others in a clarifying and ultimately uniting discussion on a way forward for labour.

Whatever path we take from the crossroads where we stand, it has to be one characterised by openness, accountability and an assertion of workers’control and independence. It has to acknowledge that the historic role of the working class is to play a vital part in transforming South Africa into a socialist society, where poverty, inequality and all forms of oppression are overcome. Above all, the path we take must be based on a deep love, respect and passion for the working class and the future it can build. 

Amandla!!

Speech by Zwelinzima Vavi

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