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The Battle for Cosatu

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The Battle for Cosatu

Patrick Craven discusses his book 'The Battle for Cosatu'. (Camera & editing: Nicholas Boyd)

31st January 2017

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Central Executive Committee meeting, 30 March 2015

In what seemed a completely unreal way, the Central Executive Committee … spent time briefly discussing the Treasury’s plan for an Unemployment Insurance Fund ‘payment holiday’, which Cosatu had already opposed. Although these would normally be important issues, it seemed to me that this was merely an attempt to pretend that we could continue with ‘business as usual’, minutes before taking the momentous decision to dismiss the general-secretary.

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And, indeed, the next item was to announce the result of a ballot – taken in my absence from the meeting – on a motion for the summary dismissal of Zwelinzima Vavi. It was 31 votes for, one against. Bheki Ntshalintshali immediately stepped in as the new general-secretary.

There was discussion about when Vavi should be informed of the decision so that he did not first hear of it in the media. Yet within five minutes, a colleague in the meeting had shown me a tweet on her cellphone from a journalist giving the result and the exact number of votes.

The meeting was adjourned and a press conference called for 11h00 the next day.

For me, that was the moment of truth. There was absolutely no way I could chair a press conference the next day to announce such a decision, still less justify it afterwards in interviews with the media. I resolved that would be my last day working in Cosatu House. I gathered all my belongings into bags and packed them into my car.

Early the next morning I spoke to Zwelinzima Vavi, and he invited me, two other sympathetic staff members and three provincial secretaries to a strategy meeting at his house to discuss the way forward.

It was almost midday before I received the first SMS from the Cosatu’s administrative secretary, Khanyisile Fakude: ‘Where are you?’

I was tempted to reply, ‘In the house of the dismissed general-secretary,’ but confined myself to ‘I am drafting a statement to explain my position’.

We watched the Cosatu press conference on TV. Apart from announcements about the dismissal of the general-secretary and the final slamming of the door on Numsa, the statement included proposals to tighten up discipline at all levels within the federation.

Those present agreed that I should resign immediately. The others would delay any such action, as some of the provincial secretaries wanted further time to discuss their next move with their members in their provinces, and we agreed to hold a press conference the next day, 1 April, at 11h00, at the head office of the Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) in Braamfontein.

I had the task of informing the media, but by the time all the arrangements had been finalised it was approaching midnight. One of the easiest and quickest ways to alert the media about an event being arranged at short notice was a call to the South African Press Association (Sapa) to ask them to send it out as an entry in their electronic diary. But Sapa, for various financial and systemic reasons, was on the verge of closure and this was their last day of operations. I phoned close to midnight and could hear a party going on in the background. Nonetheless, the woman I spoke to took down the details and assured me that it would be sent out. So it is highly likely that I was the author of the very last media alert from Sapa!

The next morning I finalised a statement we had agreed on at Vavi’s house and hit the road for the CWU head office, where I intended to make copies of it. But on the way there, I received an SMS informing me that the venue and the time of the press conference had been changed. We were now to convene at a guesthouse in Sandton an hour later, at 12h00.

The very good reason for the change was that the SABC wanted to cover the conference live, and could not do so from the CWU office. So I quickly diverted to the Numsa office in Newtown to get copies of the statement printed, then set off for Sandton.

Sapa and the social media had done their work and the turnout was magnificent. There were no fewer than 12 TV cameras, more than I had ever seen at any official Cosatu press conference. Some media people had already queried why I had not attended the Cosatu press conference the day before, and now they saw me not only attending but chairing one called by the man who had just been thrown out of the federation.

Zwelinzima Vavi read out the prepared statement.

‘I, together with the seven unions represented here – CWU, Numsa, Fawu, Saccawu, Sasawu, Denosa, Safpu – have been striving for many months to achieve unity and cohesion within Cosatu. So the ongoing implosion of Cosatu now unfolding before our eyes is a serious setback and a tragedy not only for the working class, but the country as a whole.’

Explaining that those of us represented at the press conference had ‘tried to avoid this scenario at all costs’, Vavi made it clear that ‘those pursuing the agenda of elite capture of Cosatu, inside and outside of the organisation, will stop at nothing … They have been absolutely ruthless and determined to purge any individual and any organisation that stands in their way. They are seemingly oblivious to the disastrous impact this will have on the working class.’

Vavi then listed the decisions taken by Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee on 30 March that he particularly condemned: his dismissal; Numsa’s exclusion without any option of readmission; Limusa’s inclusion; and the absence of notice of the convening of a Special National Congress.

‘These decisions,’ he continued, ‘will have a huge impact on the struggle for a strong united workers’ federation. The leadership imagine that they can continue with business as usual, which is impossible in a situation in which 365 000 workers in Numsa are excluded.

‘This implosion within Cosatu is not just a crisis for the federation and the working class alone. It reflects a broader crisis in South Africa. The underlying catastrophe of high unemployment, poverty and inequality is spreading into our dysfunctional healthcare and education systems, crime and corruption. It is endangering organisations of civil society, all democratic mass formations and democratic structures of our constitutional democracy. It is also behind the disarray in many state-owned enterprises – the SABC, SAA, Sars, Eskom, Parliament, the SAPS, Intelligence, the NPA, Sapo, IDIP – and the use of rogue elements to write fake intelligence reports condemning those perceived as opponents as imperialist agents.

‘All of our mass formations have been blunted as instruments of popular power. The youth-worker axis which drove popular struggles of the 1970s and 1980s has been reduced to a pale shadow of its former self, with the taming of the youth movement. The women’s, civic and rural people’s movements have to a large extent been co-opted or blunted to such an extent that they no longer have any real impact.

‘The last powerful mass weapon in the hands of working people is the democratic trade-union movement, which is now being targeted for co-option to serve the agenda of powerful interests. While workers thought they were struggling for the soul of the ANC, a hidden agenda was being hatched by forces hostile to the working class to capture the soul of Cosatu.

‘This all reflects the drive by a predatory elite to exercise control over all areas of society, to advance their narrow agenda of accumulation and control. Its unprincipled abuse of power is increasingly infecting all institutions of state, civil-society organisations and now the trade unions. It is a deliberate political game to hollow out all organs of people’s power, and institutions which are supposed to hold leaders to account.

‘If we don’t combat this abuse of power it will take us irreversibly towards a failed state and a society in which there is no accountability, run by a kleptocracy, driven by a particular brand of predatory and parasitic capitalism. The cancer of corruption is the most extreme expression of this disease.’

About the author

Patrick Craven came to South Africa after having studied at the University of Sussex, where he was involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Craven was variously the Director of the Workers’ Library and Museum in Johannesburg, the editor of The Shopsteward magazine, and Cosatu’s National Spokesperson from 2006 to 2015.

 

The Battle for Cosatu is published by Bookstorm publishers

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