Is South Africa’s biggest worker federation facing a split?


VENTURES AFRICA – South Africa’s biggest union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), has called for the scrapping of Gauteng’s user pay freeway system, commonly known as “e tolls”. This is despite Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s deputy president, having announced a new dispensation on the implementation of Gauteng Freeways payment system. This week Ramaphosa said Gauteng’s e-toll fees for light motor vehicles will be reduced by 50 percent. Gauteng is South Africa’s richest province.

Cosatu’s rejection of this plan is just to show its supporters that it is on the side of the hard working South Africans and it still has teeth. But this may not be the case as it seems there is a split looming within Cosatu, Africa’s biggest worker federation.

South Africans for many years have seen a split within the ANC-aligned worker federation, Cosatu, as an unthinkable apostasy. But very few organisations have remained united forever and a historic split and the formation of a Cosatu rival now seems to be in the works.

This was set in motion by Cosatu’s central executive committee (CEC)’s decision recently to fire its secretary general, Zwelinzima Vavi, after serving the organisation for the more than 15 years. Cosatu said it had fired Vavi for gross misconduct and for failure to perform his duties including boycotting the CEC meetings. Vavi had declined to grace two consecutive CEC gatherings in unanimity with unions that put off their participation in protest against National of Metalworkers Union of South Africa’s (Numsa) dismissal from Cosatu. Cosatu also accused Vavi of making public announcements that brought the federation into disgrace and demoted it to being his own organisation. Vavi was fired by a majority of members after he urged the CEC to dismiss him.

Not long after Vavi’s dismissal, another high-profile Cosatu leader, spokesman Patrick Craven, resigned from Cosatu.
Craven reportedly said that he quit because he thought Vavi’s ejection was unjust. “I could not defend the indefensible and I disagreed with the decisions,” Business Day quoted Craven as having said.

Craven joined Cosatu in 2000 after he was appointed editor of Cosatu’s magazine The Shopsteward. He was appointed to the position of spokesman in 2006. He has become the first well-known Cosatu operative to rebuff the federation in protest against Vavi’s dismissal by an unfriendly group in the CEC associated with Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini. South Africa could see several prominent defectors from Cosatu, all with faultless credentials. 

Once this happens, these leaders are going to start a whirl-wind tour of the length and breadth of the country, claiming to be the true Cosatu leaders that could put to an end government corruption and make the state more accountable. They will also promise to improve the conditions of the workers.
When did the animosity within Cosatu leadership start?

Well, it all started with Vavi and his comrade, Numsa secretary general, Irvin Jim, attacking the ANC-led government, accusing it of nasty things including corruption. Jim also accused the ruling party of failing to provide leadership since 1994 while South Africa’s working people continued to slip into poverty.

Vavi criticised the emergence of a “powerful, corrupt, predatory elite combined with a conservative populist agenda to harness the ANC to advance their interests.” He also hit out at President Jacob Zuma and his cabinet for not taking decisive actions against corrupt ministers. This did not go down well with the ANC faction within Cosatu.
Vavi had forgotten that as a member of the ANC, you do not criticise that organisation and its president and get away with it.

The Cosatu faction that fired Vavi and dismissed Numsa has a strong allegiance to Zuma and his comrades and they take exception to statements against Zuma. But they are short-sighted.

Dlamini and the ANC should have learnt from the firing of their fire-brand youth league leader, Malema, that when they fire prominent party members, the more they lose millions of supporters. Zuma should also not rejoice when his critics are pushed out of the party because this is going to have a lasting negative impact on his legacy as ANC president. He will be accused of being the president that cost the party lots of support, in addition to making the party unpopular.

The ANC, which has depended on a united Cosatu support in the past five general elections, will be a weakened party in the next elections.

Is the ANC leadership so arrogant that it cannot see this coming?

Not so. The ANC has very shrewd politicians who are aware of this. But what is holding them back from talking. This is the question members of the ANC should be asking themselves.