Rift grows between COSATU and ANC

Green Left Parramatta glparramatta at SPAMgreenleft.org.au
Thu Sep 2 10:01:16 MDT 1999

The following article appeared in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (http://www.greenleft.org.au),
Australia's radical newspaper.


 Rift grows between COSATU and ANC

 By a trade union activist

 MIDRAND, Gauteng -- August 18-25 was a significant week for the
 South African labour movement. On August 18, a three-day special
 congress of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)
 began with delegates in high spirits. The mood turned to
 disillusionment as the keynote speaker, chairperson of the ruling
 African National Congress Terror Lekota, chastised delegates for
 criticising the ANC government's policies. The conference ended
 with new COSATU president Willy Madisha struggling to find the
 words to paper over the growing rift between the ruling party and
 the workers' movement.

 The conference, ostensibly convened to elect a new leadership to
 replace the federation's three office-bearers who were elected to
 national and provincial parliaments in June, turned into a
 battleground as emergency motions were tabled by COSATU's biggest
 unions and angry responses to Lekota's speech flew around the

 “The recent trend on the part of some highly placed comrades ...
 criticising or agitating against policies and actions of the
 movement, inside and outside government, smacks of a lack of
 revolutionary discipline”, Lekota lectured the delegates on
 August 18.

 He insisted that “only consensus positions” of the
 ANC-COSATU-South African Communist Party (SACP) Alliance could be
 aired outside the councils and committees of the organisations.

 Lekota denied that this was, “as some philistines would want us
 to believe, a Stalinist suppression of opinion ... The masses of
 people who support our organisation cannot always be sure which
 is decided policy and which not if all of our differing views are
 thrown at them. Such a state of affairs can only lead to
 confusion and ultimately anarchy”, said Lekota.

 Coming in the wake of massive job losses sweeping the country,
 and on the eve of a national strike by public servants, Lekota's
 words did not go down well.

 Angry motions

 That afternoon several angry motions were proposed. The most
 vociferous came from the 210,000-strong South African Democratic
 Teachers' Union (SADTU), COSATU's fourth largest union and the
 second biggest in the public sector.

 “COSATU and its affiliates have a different understanding of
 state and public sector restructuring from that of the state.
 Moreover, the Alliance is not monolithic in nature and it is
 essential for labour to recognise the neo-liberal agenda emerging
 within the Alliance”, stated SADTU's emergency motion, which was
 eventually defeated after more than two hours of debate.

 Although the unions were angered by the ANC leadership's attack,
 it seemed that the COSATU leadership was not ready to tar the ANC
 with the brush of neo-liberalism.

 The 251,000-strong National Union of Mineworkers, COSATU's
 biggest union, took up the refrain on August 19, albeit with a
 more conciliatory approach. Proposing an emergency motion on “the
 need for maximum unity within the Alliance”, the NUM said that
 “it is becoming a trend that we are being rebuked in our
 congresses, in front of the media and the public” and that this
 should end.

 The NUM called for an emergency Alliance summit to be convened
 and lashed out at the perception that COSATU is treated as an
 adopted child or junior partner in the Alliance.

 “We must be treated with dignity and respect”, the union pleaded.
 The motion was adopted unanimously.

 Wage dispute

 The public sector wage dispute was the next dilemma facing the
 Alliance to be scrutinised.

 On August 6, minister of public service and administration
 Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi announced in parliament that talks in
 the Public Service Central Bargaining Chamber were deadlocked and
 the government's below-inflation 6.3% pay offer was to be
 unilaterally implemented. COSATU affiliates recognised that this
 decision has enormous implications. Unions in the manufacturing
 sector said, “If the government can bargain in such bad faith,
 imagine what the bosses will do to us!”.

 An emergency resolution on the public sector workers' struggle
 was passed slamming the government's “dirty tricks campaign of

 The resolution attacked the ANC government's attempt “to isolate
 and undermine workers' demands by posing the dispute as being
 about the `general' interest versus the `sectoral' (`selfish',
 `economist') interests of public sector workers and counterposing
 public service salaries to public expenditure and social delivery
 in general ... the government attack on the demands of public
 sector unions as `selfish' is an insult to the progressive
 organised labour movement and the working class in general.”

 The resolution condemned the government's imposition of a real
 wage cut as a “dangerous precedent which potentially weakens
 collective bargaining in the private sector”. It “can only be in
 the interests of capitalists and other reactionary forces” and is
 in breach of the “spirit of the Tripartite Alliance, indicating a
 greater concern to appease international capital than enhance
 workers' rights and speed up delivery”.

 COSATU pledged to support the public sector unions' “legitimate
 struggle for a living wage”, “to condemn, in the strongest terms,
 the unilateral actions of the government” and to “call upon
 affiliates to begin a process of secondary strike action and
 other forms of solidarity action” in support of the public sector
 workers and their strike and rallies planned for August 24 [see
 accompanying article].

 Although delegates called for a two-day general strike if the
 dispute was not resolved, and the emergency resolution stated
 that “the real issue is government fiscal austerity measures:
 wage cuts, social budget cuts, downsizing and privatisation”,
 conspicuously absent from both the congress and the militant
 speeches during the August 24 strike were references to the ANC
 government's austere Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR)
 macro-economic policy.

 Similarly, there was no suggestion that a healthy and functioning
 Alliance should, at the very least, have played a key role in
 resolving such a major dispute with government, rather than
 fuelling it.

 Growing gulf

 A commentator from the SACP observed that both the conference and
 the speeches during the strike showed the growing gulf between
 union members and union leaders, let alone the rift in the

 The Congress of South African Students held its own march
 demanding that teachers and the government reach a settlement and
 that exams be put forward. The South African Council of Churches
 offered to step in as a mediator so that pupils would not suffer

 “The fact that COSATU was not able to convince the churches and
 the students to support the strike shows a demobilisation of
 community support”, a 33-year veteran of the trade movement

 However, public opinion, which initially rode high against the
 unions, was shifted by the strike. South Africa's main
 newspapers' initial calls for the “cash-strapped” government to
 stand firm against the demands of the “lazy” and “underworked”
 public servants changed to a call for government and the unions
 to resolve the matter as speedily as possible.

 Government claims that the public sector wage bill was consuming
 52% of the total public service budget, up from 37% a few years
 ago, merely exposed the degree of the ANC's cuts to social
 services. COSATU successfully publicised the fact that the salary
 of a cabinet minister is 2600% greater than that of a general

 Ravi Naidoo, director of the National Labour and Economic
 Development Institute, points out, “The thorn in the side of the
 Tripartite Alliance has always been [government] economic

 That thorn is unlikely to be removed by a special meeting of
 senior government, labour and business leaders in the National
 Economic, Development and Labour Council, hurriedly convened to
 debate macro-economic and trade and industry policies. The same
 is true of a promise by the new Reserve Bank governor (and former
 ANC minister) Tito Mboweni to consult the labour movement when
 devising monetary policy.

 For the documents and speeches of the COSATU special congress,
 visit <http://www.cosatu.org.za/congress/cong99/congress.html>.



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