Preview: Cosatu Congress haunted by Marikana

If the mining crisis now enveloping the platinum and gold sectors were not such a serious issue that it could bring South Africa's economy to its knees, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi could be forgiven for feeling just a little smug. For years he has been issuing warnings about a "ring of fire" that could swallow urban centres due to mass uprisings by the country's desperate and disillusioned.

As fate would have it, the uprisings which have now provoked a quasi-state of emergency came not through service delivery protests, but a wage rebellion in what has up to now been a relatively stable sector. But Vavi would not be feeling smug only because he was proved right. It would also be the fact that, as a result of the Marikana massacre and the ensuing mining crisis, those who thought they would use this week's Cosatu Congress to teach him a lesson are now chastened and disorientated.

Had the events in the platinum sector, starting with January's upheavals at Impala Platinum and climaxing with the protracted strike at Lonmin, not exposed that mineworkers are rejecting the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Cosatu's biggest affiliate would have been flexing its muscle, particularly against Vavi.

The NUM, traditionally the conveyor belt to high office in the ANC, is used to swaying the federation on political issues, and had every intention of doing so this time around too. But after its leaders were repeatedly humiliated and branded as sell-outs, it would not be that easy to play Big Brother at the congress. The NUM will have to provide an explanation to the congress as to why it has been repeatedly rejected by its own members, and why the renegade Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) has been able to move into its space.

Considering the spreading strike action and growing unrest in the mining sector, these will not be easy questions for the NUM to answer or to play down. Luckily for NUM's leaders, there is the sideshow of the ANC succession battle and contestation for leadership positions within Cosatu to distract delegates.

The NUM is firmly ensconced in the camp campaigning for Jacob Zuma to be re-elected as ANC president in Mangaung in December. Vavi is not. He has a serious case of buyer's remorse in the Zuma presidency, after being one of Zuma's main backers before the ANC Polokwane conference.

Vavi is a consummate nonconformist when it comes to ANC and Alliance politics. Despite being under pressure from inside Cosatu and the SACP for some time for his criticism of government and particularly over his reluctance to back Zuma, he refuses to backtrack - even for PR purposes. He won't capitulate and say he'll support Zuma's second term, even if his re-election as general secretary depends on it.

Vavi also doesn't use the coded election parlance of the Alliance: I'll stand if I'm asked to. He is on record months ago as saying he'll stand for re-election as the Cosatu boss and stuck to the line even until yesterday. He unapologetically wants to continue to lead Cosatu and keep it as in independent, critical voice of the workers, even if this makes Alliance relations untenable.

Many in the trade union federation find his behaviour annoying. Vavi could be the last remaining obstacle to Cosatu pronouncing its support for Zuma's second term after the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) last week gave into pressure from the Zuma camp. And Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini has now made a public call that Cosatu unions must unite behind Zuma.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Dlamini said: "I like him (Zuma) very much as an individual. He is a leader who I respect. He has led this country both as a leader in the ANC and as the president of the country. He is able to listen to all of us in the alliance."

But Vavi is still holding out on declaring support for Zuma, using as his shield a decision by Cosatu's Central Committee last year that the trade union federation should not pronounce its preferences for the ANC leadership race. As a result, the pro-Zuma camp is searching for a candidate to stand against him - the only criterion being that the nominee, once elected, should come out in support of Zuma and keep his mouth shut thereafter.

Initially National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) general secretary Fikile Majola was touted, but he is not popular enough to challenge Vavi. Cosatu's KwaZulu-Natal secretary Zet Luzipho is now being pushed to stand for the position, but it remains to be seen if he will in fact do so. Dlamini is also up for re-election, with SA Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) president Thobile Ntola expected to stand against him.

But while the leadership issues, both that of Cosatu and the ANC, are likely to animate the congress, it is the worker discontent with their unions that should be of biggest concern to Cosatu this week. The organisational report to be presented to the congress states that according to a survey Cosatu conducted, 60% of Cosatu members are not satisfied with how their unions have dealt with securing better wages.

Cosatu's affiliates cannot afford to shrug at this finding showing that the vast majority of members feel that their unions are failing at their core function. The revolt at the Lonmin mine in Marikana, and the strikes spreading to other mines, are precisely a manifestation of this discontent with the NUM, and a throbbing reminder of what could happen if unions are out of touch with or lose the confidence of their members.

For this reason Vavi says the 3,000 Cosatu delegates should desist from being consumed with leadership battles and use the congress as a "platform for self-introspection". Speaking on The Justice Factor on Sunday, Vavi said the issue of the "social distance" between leaders of Cosatu and their members was one of the difficult issues that needed to be tackled. If "systemic problems" such as these were not confronted and dealt with, Cosatu may have "no future beyond five years", Vavi said.

Dlamini will open the congress on Monday, followed by a keynote address by Zuma. SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande will also address delegates during the opening session. All three speakers are likely to use the occasion to rope Cosatu onto the pro-Zuma bandwagon. Vavi delivers his political report after lunch, which is likely to be a stinging rebuke of government with a catalogue of how the working class and poor have been failed.

The Marikana massacre is likely to remain the bloodied elephant in the room throughout the congress. Vavi says that the federation will be making a "major announcement" on the mining crisis on Monday. These will probably be measures to help the NUM wipe some of the egg off its face.

It also remains to be seen whether Cosatu will respond to government's jackboot crackdown on civilians in Marikana, or whether political expediency will keep the biggest voice of the working class gagged.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.