News / Opinion / Columns

Mamokgethi Molopyane
4 minute read
17 Sep 2018
4:52 pm

Cosatu is mattering less and less. Can it be saved?

Mamokgethi Molopyane

The union needs to undergo an extreme leadership makeover if it hopes to survive.

Cosatu members. File image.

Beyond lamenting the plight of its members, the state of the economy, and carnivorous and self-interest-serving capitalists, what can be proposed by the labour movement that will be different from what it has been doing since democracy?

What opportunity is there for an organisation such as Cosatu to overcome the differences within its affiliates and present to its weary members a new, exciting political programme that’s realistic and can ease an ordinary member’s worries?

The union’s 13th National Congress kicked off on Monday against the background of an economy in recession, a mining industry shedding jobs and a possible reduction in the number of people employed by the state. This and much more is unfolding at a time when the role of Cosatu has become somewhat ambiguous within the alliance. Some may even remark that the huge number of unnecessary injuries to the federation were self-inflicted. Others may retort that it has seen better days and is just holding on to past glories for relevance.

The magnitude of organisational problems – such as differing positions within its central executive committee (CEC) on African National Congress (ANC) leadership, disciplining individual leaders, intervening in factional battles, compromises on national minimum wages and where it stands on national policies that impact members – requires the union to do more than just change leadership.

Currently, the federation is plunged into chaos while attempting to appear as if it is holding things together. Ugliness has appeared that cannot be masked, things have fallen apart, and to pretend they haven’t is to deny weakness.

Using the past 20 years as a basis for analysis, the federation seemed to have increasingly moved to a position of favouring availing its leaders to serve in the alliance partner’s NEC, which led to some of them being appointed to government positions. The main reasoning was that it was better to influence national policy development and advance workers’ positions from within than outside.

It was a Trojan horse-like ploy I deem to have failed. Now, although the intention was not to deceive but merely to get inside, unlike the Greeks, once the union leaders were in government, they could not secure a single policy change or victory. Moreover, they began to weaken as former comrades. Soon a once thriving, progressive organisation found itself emptied from within. This altered not just the content it produced but the culture of the organisation. The rest is the history that we’ve come to witness in the past ten years.

What is unmistakable, and important, is that the positioning of power in the secretariat has led to:

a) The deification of individuals who hold that position and in so doing elevating them above their traditional grassroots base.

b) The weakening role of trade unions in servicing members, since most of the programmes are determined by a select few who resonate little with what the workers want. This was seen in the mining industry two years before and is what contributed to the Marikana incident.

This provokes deeper questions about the suitability of Cosatu and if it can still represent its members beyond the basic trade union rights and collective bargaining. While being cognisant of the past historic victories for workers, the exposed weakness of the federation cannot be ignored or wished away.

What can the federation do? Well for a start, an extreme makeover.

First, if Cosatu wants to keep the red flag flying from the influential mountaintop of the economy, it will have to undergo an extreme leadership makeover. Young men and women must be given a chance to lead; they may bring new ways of doing things.

Second, that makeover project must include the youth, who are mostly unemployed, and the missing workers who fell out of the labour market because of retrenchments. Any renewal programme that does not look into broader societal issues, such as youth unemployment or service delivery, is doomed.

Third – a paradigm change is needed in how unions function in the face of advanced technology. The widespread use of technology has changed and will continue to have a transformational effect on economic and social systems.

When considered from a socioeconomic viewpoint, the more new technology becomes embedded in production and creates new industries and work, the more it creates imbalances such as rendering certain jobs outmoded. If South African unions are to survive well into the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s changes, they must start observing and learning from their counterparts in developed economies – Germany and the US offer great case studies.

Finally, let me end by re-emphasising what I’ve said many times before about the future of Cosatu: unless there’s change that favours the workers, the union will face an internal revolt where even the most loyal, starry-eyed member will galvanise for change – or worse, walk out and find a new home.

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