Business / Business News

Mamokgethi Molopyane
4 minute read
8 Nov 2016
11:48 am

Cosatu’s sudden turn was totally unexpected

Mamokgethi Molopyane

Why this signals change.

Last week had its fair share of political drama that could give the writers of House Of Cards a run for their money.

Some marched to Tshwane to say ‘Hands off National Treasury’. Add the release of the State of Capture report and it’s not so surprising revelations, plus the tears of Eskom CEO Brian Molefe and elusive Saxonworld shebeen (hey Moneyweb readers, those of you who know its location, please GPS me the direction).

South African labour unions are really political organisations, with tremendous influence on ‘corridors of power’ within the ruling alliance. Their interest is as much about workers as they are about influence in society. The ANC is still reeling from the effects of Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) not mobilising resources and campaigning for it leading up to August 3 local government elections. Underestimate the impact unions have on South Africa’s political economy at your own risk.

On Thursday, an incident of great significance played out before our eyes and yet it went unnoticed by many. Cosatu issued not one but three media statements. On Twitter I summarised two of those three statements as ‘Perhaps Cosatu’s harshest and most unexpected telling off ’ of the ANC.

  • The first statement was about the release State of Capture report, and how the union would discuss it in its coming central executive committee (CEC) meeting and then comment.
  • The second statement harshly denounced “wasteful expenditure of taxpayer’s money by public representatives on frivolous legal challenges.”
  • In the third statement, it told its ally, the ANC, it had had enough of being treated like a non-factor.

If anyone had told me nine years ago, that in 2016 I would be writing a column about a National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa-less Cosatu that’s (a) telling President Jacob Zuma (albeit in a generalised way) to stop wasting taxpayers money, and (b) scolding the ANC and its leaders for the condescending treatment and arrogant dismissal of workers issues, I would have said that they were mad. After all, it’s a known fact that Cosatu sustained a relationship of lover-like devotion between itself, Zuma and the current leadership of the ANC. At that time, no one (inside or outside) could criticise the ANC dealings without incurring the wrath of the once-mighty federation. Numsa tried and lost. Earlier this year, NUM received a lashing from its mother body – Cosatu – when it made known its preference of Cyril Ramaphosa as Zuma’s ‘rightful’ successor.

Imagine my shock when National Health Education & Allied Workers Union (Nehawu)  in its CEC statement not only stated that Zuma’s “leadership in government is now untenable,” but also urged him to resign and be succeeded by Ramaphosa. Admittedly, I did not see that coming. This is a union that was among those who reprimanded NUM for making the same call.

Nehawu’s frustrations did not go unnoticed. In a Facebook post, Karl Cloete – Numsa’s deputy general secretary – succinctly questioned whether Cosatu would demonstrate consistency and discipline the public sector union. After all, one of the reasons Numsa was expelled was for criticising the ANC for failing the workers and calling for President Zuma to resign.

Oddly, those Cosatu statements came days after Nehawu’s one. Surprisingly, instead of a reprimand, the federation picked up where its affiliate left off in reminding the ANC: it will not be ignored nor be silent about the leadership crisis in the ruling party.

To some extent, I understand why Cosatu could not risk taking on Nehawu – it would be a move that would have proved financially and politically deadly. It cannot afford to have its largest affiliate withhold its monthly subscription pay or have a situation where Nehawu rebels against it. In organised labour, numbers matter, especially after Numsa’s expulsion. Cosatu knows this, hence there’s no action against Nehawu. If disciplinary action comes, expect a new order and possibly a leadership change in Cosatu.

Taken together, the two incidents (the Nehawu CEC statement and two of Cosatu’s three) mark the turning tide within the ruling alliance where labour has fallen out of love with Zuma. The once continuous singsong of support has been replaced with a stronger and less subtle sound of people fed up.

The real motive for Cosatu’s sudden regaining of its voice is nothing heroic. In fact, I view it as hypocritical. It waited until a perceived weakness in the president before speaking out against the wrong. Be wary of such leaders.

The extent to which these labour-related events of the last week will have an impact on the alliance partnership is yet to reveal itself. Are we finally seeing the end of what’s been a Cosatu tragicomedy – in that Cosatu, potentially so influential, has become subdued and has been left feeling bewildered that its proximity to corridors of power and lover-like devotion does not quite work?

Perhaps its coming CEC later this month will give us an indication. Don’t hold your breath; it might be a while.

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