Zuma sweeps up Cosatu

Cosatu is one of the most transparent and media-friendly organisations in the country. There is a constant flow of press statements, alerts and speeches from the Cosatu headquarters. It has become the normal practice to hold media briefings after Cosatu meetings in order to explain the nature of the federation's deliberations and its decisions. And there are always graphic sound bites from Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi to spice up the news coverage.

On Wednesday, after much wrangling, Cosatu finally revealed its position on the ANC leadership question. It issued a statement almost 24 hours after taking the decision and, curiously, no media conference was held to explain it. While press conferences are being held around the country for ANC and allied structures to announce their nominees for the ANC top six, Cosatu (or perhaps some of its leaders) seem to be ducking from having to spell out the position in public.

On Monday and Tuesday this week, Cosatu's Central Executive Committee (CEC) held a special meeting to thrash out all the contentious issues that could not be dealt with at the federation's national congress last month. All political issues had been deferred to the CEC to prevent the congress from being bogged down and risking a stalemate in the full glare of the media.

Among the issues the CEC had to contend with was whether Cosatu should pronounce its preferences for senior positions in the ANC ahead of the ruling party's national conference in Mangaung in December. Five years ago, ahead of the ANC's Polokwane conference, there was no dilemma on this issue whatsoever. Cosatu was fully behind Zuma's bid for the ANC presidency against Thabo Mbeki and made its intention clear long before the conference.

But Cosatu's disenchantment with the Polokwane leadership was apparent only a few months later, and it also became a vocal critic of the government under Zuma's leadership. Vavi has been quoted time and time again as saying that Cosatu was not prepared to give the ANC a "blank cheque" in elections to do as it pleased and that its support was "not unconditional". Later Cosatu said it would desist from again supporting individuals in a leadership race as it compromised the federation's standing to be attached to certain leaders instead of policy principles.

As pressure mounted inside and outside of the federation to pronounce its position, and some leaders such as Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini breaking ranks to announce that Zuma was their preferred candidate, Vavi tried to hold up a previous decision that they would declare their position "at the appropriate time".

It all became a big farce at the congress when it was clear that while most delegates supported Zuma's re-election, Cosatu was knotted in all its previous statements. It was also restricted by the ANC's embargo that succession could only be discussed once the nominations process was opened - which unfortunately for Cosatu was a week after the congress.

Even then, affiliates such as metalworkers union Numsa tried to force the congress to name its preferred leaders, but the proposal was shot down by others. Late on Wednesday, Cosatu finally made its position on the ANC leadership known.

"Our intervention does not seek to endorse any slate politics or divide the ANC. On the contrary, we seek to achieve a more united ANC where a bitter leadership contest must be avoided so that we create more space for policy debate to shape the content of the second phase of the transition for a radical transformation of our economy.

"We shall advance a position of both continuity and change in the Polokwane collective. We will endorse those we have identified as the core of the Polokwane collective - the current president, deputy president and the secretary general," the Cosatu statement said.

It went on to state that the federation was, however, not supporting the retention of the national treasurer Mathews Phosa and deputy secretary general Thandi Modise. "In our assessment the other comrades have not assisted us in taking forward the Polokwane resolutions."

How Cosatu can distinguish that out of the entire leadership only Phosa and Modise were responsible for not implementing the Polokwane resolutions is surprising, considering the Zuma and secretary general Gwede Mantashe are the ultimate bosses who can decide whether or not decisions are implemented. It seems Cosatu is willing to overlook the weaknesses of some of the ANC leaders expediently, yet nit-pick on others.

"We will engage with the current leadership and the rest of the ANC to ensure that this nucleus is retained and that it should not contest each other." This belies an intense behind the scenes debate in the CEC about whether Kgalema Motlanthe should be retained as deputy president.

Sources say some of the affiliates argued that Motlanthe "should be taught a lesson" for wanting to stand against Zuma. This despite the fact that Motlanthe has not pronounced his willingness to contest the presidency and has consistently distanced himself from talk about succession.

A decision was finally reached to support Zuma, Motlanthe and Mantashe (or the nucleus) to retain their positions "in the interests of unity", according to sources who attended the meeting.

Explaining this, the statement said: "In identifying this collective we are not in any way suggesting that it is perfect with no weaknesses of its own, collectively or individually. We however believe that this nucleus has the best possibility under the circumstances to take us forward in the manner as categorically stated by our congress: 'We need political leadership that is decisive, coherent and focused, and that is not afraid to challenge the neo-liberal orthodoxies'."

The statement also announced that Cosatu would moving to lodge a Section 77 notice at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) to embark on protest action to demand, among other things, strategic nationalisation, a radical overhaul of macro-economic policy, a "realignment" of the Treasury, the nationalisation of the SA Reserve Bank, and a new mandate for all state-owned enterprises and state development finance institutions.

The federation is of the view that all these would propel "radical economic transformation", or what the Cosatu congress dubbed "the Lula moment" after Brazil's economic success story under its former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

It seems Cosatu wants to change everything and everybody except the people in charge.

On the multiplying and violent strike action in the platinum, gold and coal mining sectors, which has left behind Cosatu and its biggest affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers, the federation has decided on a number of measures to regain ground in the industry. These include:

  • demanding the immediate reinstatement of all workers who have been dismissed and calling on other mining companies that have threatened to dismiss workers to withdraw these forthwith;

  • embarking on solidarity actions across the economy in support of this demand for reinstatement. Every union will immediately convene workplace general meetings to discuss the nature and timing of the solidarity actions we should embark up and will then feed back to -- Cosatu in the next two weeks;

  • campaigning for the establishment of a special commission on conditions and wages of mineworkers, as well as for the total banning of labour brokers in the mining industry and the economy as a whole;

  • leading a campaign to speed up the transformation of the conditions in the communities surrounding the mines, to provide decent houses, schools, clinics, running water, electricity and tarred roads;

  • creating an operation centre in Rustenburg led by senior leaders of Cosatu and its affiliates who will co-ordinate the on-the-ground political and organisational response.Cosatu is also to make its own submission to the Farlam Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana massacre. The NUM is one of the parties under investigation by the commission and already has a high-powered legal team representing it.

But after all that has happened in the last three months, it would difficult for Cosatu and the NUM to win back the trust of mineworkers. The upheaval in the mining industry now has a life of its own, and no amount of posturing now can reinstate the lost confidence of the workers.

Politically, Cosatu is treading on dangerous ground by throwing its lot in with the incumbent leadership - as they would look hypocritical and duplicitous if they still want to maintain their independent and critical voice. In 2007, they could have been forgiven for not being able to anticipate the leadership qualities of the people they chose to back.

This time, they do.

As one of the leaders of the president's election campaign in 2007, Vavi memorably proclaimed that Zuma was an "unstoppable tsunami". Ironically, Cosatu and Vavi himself are now being swept away by the second wave of Zuma's campaign for power. Considering all the critical statements Vavi has articulated on behalf of Cosatu about the crisis of leadership in government and the ANC, it is no wonder that he recoiled from personally making the announcement.

The high ground Vavi normally speaks from is no longer available to Cosatu.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.