GLW: COSATU's strategy weakens worker's Movement

Green Left Parramatta glparramatta at
Thu May 18 17:46:20 MDT 2000

The following article appeared in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (,
Australia's radical newspaper.


SOUTH AFRICA: Misdirected strategy weakens workers' movement

JOHANNESBURG -- The broad left (both in South Africa and
internationally) has taken a cautious approach to critically
analysing the program and activities of South Africa's largest
and most progressive trade union federation, the Congress of
South African Trade Unions (COSATU), since 1994. However, the
time has come to acknowledge that COSATU is rapidly losing its
political direction.

A large portion of the leadership of COSATU (and its affiliates)
are well on their way to becoming bona fide members of the
“capitalism with a human face” club, and in the process are
laying the groundwork for a fragmented and dispirited workers'

This ideological shift lies in the leadership's acceptance of two
related assumptions:

(i) that capitalism's new round of global accumulation (through
more sophisticated forms of imperial domination) means that the
core role and character of unions has changed. It is becoming
commonplace to hear COSATU leaders argue that, due to the
“hegemony of capitalism” and “new global realities”, trade unions
must fundamentally alter their strategic vision in order to
remain “relevant”. In other words: “If you can't beat them, join
them”; and

(ii) that the April 1994 democratic breakthrough signalled that
the days of unions placing the active political struggle for
socialism at the top of the agenda are over, or at the very
least, must take deep cover in the bowels of an ongoing “national
democratic revolution”.

 [Picture]  Partnership

Tied to this are political tactics adopted by the COSATU
leadership to win concessions from its “partner” in the
tripartite alliance, the governing African National Congress (the
tripartite alliance brings together COSATU, the ANC and the SACP
-- the South African Communist Party), that consistently water
down the demands being made.

Ostensibly, this approach is designed to ensure an acceptable
degree of ideological and organisational continuity with the ANC
leadership, so as to maintain the “national democratic alliance”
that is seen as the only viable political/organisational vehicle
that can meet the needs of the workers and poor.

These tactics, while bringing some moderate relief for the
majority, are more a means of preserving and advancing the
personal careers and political futures of leaders across the
alliance spectrum.

While it makes radical-sounding statements on worker-related and
political economy issues and conducts limited mass actions
designed to extract concessions and remind capital of the power
of workers, the COSATU leadership has been unwilling to draw the
organisational and class lessons from being in an alliance
dominated by a ruling party pursuing a capitalist path.

These tactics have been sold to the workers' movement with the
constant argument that “unity” within the alliance must be
maintained. This is counter-posed to the dangers that could arise
if an independent, socialist workers' movement and political
organisation should break this “unity”, and thus weaken the
“liberation movement”.

 [Picture]  Again, the reality is far different. The unity that
  the ANC leadership has fashioned (and which the
leadership of COSATU and the SACP have bought into) revolves
around a mass of radical-sounding rhetoric about
“transformation”, “a progressive national democratic revolution”,
“a developmental state” and the “national interest”.

The ANC-led government is using the space created by this
rhetoric to further entrench capitalist relations of production
and distribution. At the same time, those questioning the
substance behind the rhetoric -- or taking action to oppose the
ANC government's political direction -- are politically attacked
and isolated. The result is that organised workers are left in a
state of political and organisational confusion as to where their
class interests lie.

The leadership of COSATU places all the blame for the social and
economic ills being suffered by workers on the finance and
industrial capitalists -- without also admitting that the class
agenda being pushed by the ANC government is wholly consistent
with, and facilitates, the capitalists' attacks on workers.

COSATU leaders are unwilling to see the South African state for
what it is -- an instrument of capitalist class rule administered
by the ANC -- and instead have become enmeshed by the ANC's
appeals for a “patriotic” multi-class front that will take
forward the ill defined tasks of the national democratic

Focus on process

A good example of the practical effect of this strategic and
tactical confusion is the character of COSATU's (and the SACP's)
opposition to the ANC's neo-liberal economic policy, the Growth,
Employment and Redistribution program (GEAR). Despite all its
criticisms of GEAR, COSATU's opposition has been fragmented and
selective. It has failed to tackle GEAR on the political terrain
that provides its raison d'etre.

COSATU has instead focussed on the “non-inclusive” process that
formulated GEAR and has appealed for this or that component of
GEAR to be retooled in the hope that a more progressive outcome
will result. It is a hopelessly economistic approach that seeks
to pick and choose different aspects of an overall macro-economic
framework without tackling the class politics that provides the
foundation for GEAR.

Arising from this self-induced conundrum, an even more disturbing
notion has arisen among COSATU and SACP leaders -- that the
present situation demands a “creative management of
contradictions”. Translated, this means that the political and
economic framework formulated and driven by the ANC leadership
has to be accepted and that the role of organised workers is to
squeeze as much from this “contradictory process” as possible.

This leaves the mass of workers on the political sidelines,
waiting to be lined up to resolve this or that particular
“contradiction” being “fought out” amongst the various layers of
leadership inside and outside government. This seriously weakens
the basic class weapon of workers -- the withholding of their
labour power -- by converting it from a political weapon to force
the ANC government and the capitalists to back down, and to
create real space for increased workers' power, democracy and the
struggle for socialism, to something to be turned on or off.

COSATU-aligned investment companies have also revealed the
serious and unmanageable contradictions that have arisen as a
result of COSATU's understanding of the tasks facing the working
class. These companies have adopted a position that sees the
private accumulation of capital as a genuine means to empower
workers through capitalist ownership and influence in the
economy. The political contradictions that have subsequently
arisen are obvious. Again, COSATU leaders argue that the best
that can be done is to “manage” such contradictions.

Another recent example was COSATU's response to the mass firing
of 3000 miners employed at Canadian-owned mining company, Placer
Dome. COSATU-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers made loud
noises about the immorality of capitalism and the greed of the
bosses. Soon after, the NUM struck a deal with the company to
re-employ 200 workers (with a promise of a few hundred more to be
rehired over the next year or so) who will have to work
continuous or full calendar shifts.

Incredibly, this was hailed as a victory for the working class.
NUM general secretary Gwede Mantashe was quoted as saying that
“we need to work together to be successful” and that “this
agreement demonstrates what can be achieved when a company and a
union engage one another in a robust, open and constructive
manner (that) holds promise of expanding job opportunities”.

Rhetorical demands

COSATU's current nationwide mass action campaign against job
losses reveals the serious weaknesses inherent in the strategy of
the COSATU leadership. A series of marches and one-day work
stoppages -- culminating in a national stoppage on May 10 (see
article on page 10) -- have been aimed at cajoling the
capitalists and the ANC government into a change of heart but
have done little to fundamentally contest the macro-economic
framework underlying the attack on jobs.

COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has said, “COSATU
demands that business create quality jobs and brings an end to
casualisation and outsourcing”. Vavi has “urged” the government
to honour its commitments in the National Framework Agreement (an
agreement that requires negotiations before state assets are
“restructured”, i.e., readied for privatisation).

The COSATU leadership has been quoted as saying that “unless
government and business meet our demands, we will go ahead with
the national strike [on May 10]”. And yet, there is little
indication that rank-and-file workers (or the leadership for that
matter) have a clear understanding of the practical means
required to achieve COSATU's rhetorical “demands”, or of what the
COSATU leadership intends to do beyond organising a managed show
of workers' power on the streets that can be easily ridden out by
the state and capital.

Unless COSATU is willing to lead its members in a politically
informed class battle to change fundamental policies and restore
its organisational accountability (by ending its subservience to
the ANC leadership), its “demands” will remain pleas with no

In South Africa, just as in the rest of the capitalist world, the
reality of the content (if not the form) of class oppression and
ownership has not changed in a substantive way. The underlying
political and economic assumptions and the strategy and tactics
chosen by the COSATU leadership are a great deal more
“unrealistic” than alternative socialist strategies and tactics
grounded in an overt political trade unionism, linked to the
realities and necessities of the working class struggle.

While aspects of the “objective conditions” under which the South
African workers' movement now finds itself have changed, the
fundamental political and economic challenges have not. As long
as private ownership of the means of production (capitalism)
creates the necessity for workers' collective organisation (i.e.,
to end the exploitative relationship between wage labour and
capital), so too will it be necessary for the working class to
struggle to take economic and political power. Some of us still
call it socialism.


[Dale McKinley is chairperson of the South African Communist
Party's Johannesburg Central branch. This article reflects his
personal opinion.]


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