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South Africa’s labour movement a house divided

By Crystal Orderson, in Cape Town
Posted on Wednesday, 1 May 2019 10:45, updated on Thursday, 2 May 2019 12:21

Labour unions demonstrating against corruption in Zuma's ANC in 2017 - REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

May Day is over 133 years old ...in 1886 workers stood up and demanded eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest.

As the world marks Worker’s Day, South Africa’s biggest trade union Federation, the Congress of South African Trade unions, COSATU will march in the different cities across the country.

  • The main rally in Durban will be addressed by the President of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa and by President of COSATU Zingiswa Losi.

Cosatu’s national spokesperson Sizwe Pamla told The Africa Report: “like the pioneers who took a stand against the slave working conditions, this May Day presents us with an opportunity to reflect and commit ourselves again to the ongoing fight against slave wages, retrenchments and poor working conditions in South Africa”.

Pamla spoke frankly about the unemployment crisis in the country, the state of the ailing electricity utility, ESKOM, Cosatu’s continued support for Cyril Ramaphosa. And also about the difficult moment for trade unions in the country.

With one in three people unemployed in South Africa and the official unemployment rate just over 27% ; a stagnant economy, bail outs upon bail outs for the ailing state-owned entity Eskom and corruption within the government, Pamla says the government is struggling to “transform society and the economy, and while it is obvious that there is enormous pressure from capital both at home and abroad, the federation remains committed fighting for workers’ rights.”

Cosatu by the numbers, a house divided:

  • Africa’s largest trade union federation with 1,6 million members
  • Constituted of 16 Unions
  • The largest is now the National Education and Health Workers Union, NEHAWU, with around 250 000 members;
  • But in 2016 Cosatu ‘s largest affiliate NUMSA with its 345 000 members was kicked out of the Federation.
  • The new federation that split created, the South African Federation of Trade unions (SAFTU) is being led by Cosatu’s former secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi

Pamla says Cosatu had hoped it would have 4 million members in 2025 but this is unlikely to happen due to the changing nature in the workplace and the country’s ailing economy unable to create the much-needed jobs for people.

But he says the Federation has “put in a lot of work in the last few months, we’ve been complaining that business and government continue to undermine bodies like Nedlac [the council where government, labour and business convene] – we have been saying they hold some of the answers and can avoid confrontation and strikes because of policy differences…We are prepared to be constructive partners with all the role-players. We remain hopeful that the Government will address the issue of the high unemployment rate”.

The stark reality

Trade union numbers have been falling and Cosatu has been losing members. Pamla says the Economy is changing and the unions are finding it difficult to organise workers to join trade unions.

  • “We have to use new methods to organise and we know that trade unions are not immune to corruption, we have some opportunists and some that are fighting over resources”, says Pamla.
  • “We need to take a step back and ask what has divided unions? The Proliferation of new unions has not helped to strengthen the workers’ unions.”

Pamla says the fall out with its former secretary-general, Zwelinzima Vavi and the formation of the new federation the SA Federation of Trade Union in 2017 weakened Cosatu. Kicking out its largest affiliate, NUMSA also played a role. “There is some hostility, the fact is Vavi still feels he was unfairly removed the Cosatu of 2019 is very different from the one in 2009, we are trying to correct the sins of the past”, says Pamla.

On Cosatu support for Cyril Ramaphosa

“The ANC is complex and we know there will always be tensions”, says Pamla, “but we prefer that differences are not over corruption. As workers we defeated Jacob Zuma and those who thought that they could hijack the ANC and we said we will continue to fight those battles and those forces that undermine the ANC. And we remain hopeful that with Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC in charge we will continue to fight corruption.”

On the difficulties facing Eskom

The country’s main electricity supplier, Eskom remains an albatross around South Africa’s neck.

  • A locus  of corruption under the Jacob Zuma administration
  • Rolling blackouts and constant bail outs
  • Viewed by several credit-rating companies as one of the biggest risks to the country
  • The World Bank estimates that the power utility has 66% too many employees, while Eskom itself says, of its 48 600 employees it has 16 000 more workers than it needs

So how does Cosatu see it? Is an Eskom turn around possible?

Pamla believes it can be turned around if Ramaphosa is open to open to new ideas. “We want Ramaphosa to stop recycling people like Eskom’s chairperson, Jabu Mabuza.

  • “We do not agree with the unbundling and after the election, we will critically look at the work of the Board and see whether they have turned around Eskom and if we are not happy we say let us remove them and bring in people that are competent.”

With a week to the country’s sixth democratic election, Pamla says Cosatu is not about idealising the past but about “imagining the future, to continue to work to change the lives of the poor and continue to organise, mobilise and be ready to fight relentlessly to shape a future that is free of unemployment, poverty and inequality”.

Bottom line: Though a divided house, South Africa’s labour movement remains a key player in the political landscape. Ramaphosa’s ability to bring them onboard his reform agenda will be a key marker of his success.

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