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South Africa: Ramaphosa brings organised labour back into the fold

By Crystal Orderson, in Cape Town
Posted on Wednesday, 12 June 2019 16:32

A member of the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) holds a placard during a march against job losses in Durban, South Africa, February 13, 2019. Reuters/Rogan Ward

Marginalised under President Jacob Zuma, the largest labour federation in South African, the Congress of South African trade unions (COSATU), is back in the corridors of power.

Even before Zuma, COASTU felt sidelined within the so-called tripartite alliance of the ruling ANC, the South African Communist Party and COSATU.

  • When it came out strongly against the corruption within the Zuma era, it was definitively excluded.
  • The political marriage, a hold-over from the fight against apartheid, should see partners engage and discuss economic and political policy.

Ramaphosa knew for him to win the ANC presidency he needed the federation on his side.

It helped that Ramaphosa is a former trade unionist:

  • He cut his teeth as a union organiser within the mining sector,
  • He was the first secretary-general of the National Union of Mineworkers, NUM
  • And, with the NUM, was a founding member of COSATU.

COSATU’S political gamble paid off and they are back in favour with the new administration.

Several former senior union members are now key ministers in the new Ramaphosa administration and in key portfolios.

Consultant Daniel Silke says it was wrong to exclude Cosatu from key debates and that the fact that there are so many former COSATU leaders within the Cabinet can only help Ramaphosa.

Former union members in cabinet:

  • Ebrahim Patel (former clothing workers secretary-general) Minister of Trade and Industry and Economic policy
  • Thulas Nxesi (former teacher union secretary-general) Minister of employment and labour
  • Fikile Majola (former national education and healthcare secretary-general) Deputy trade and Industry Minister
  • Sd’umo Dlamini (former Cosatu boss) Deputy Minister: Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development

There are also many former trade unions that won seats as MP’s.

Cosatu was quick to congratulate the new ministers but warned that they will be closely watched.

“While we are not happy with every single appointment, overall this is a very well-balanced government which reflects the spirit and themes of a New Dawn. COSATU hopes that the newly appointed ministers and their deputies appreciate the urgency of the situation and that they will focus on the key priorities promised to the people”, said Cosatu’s Sizwe Pamla.

Taking on the State-owned Enterprises

One reason COSATU is back in the game is because, “Ramaphosa is serious about structural reform of the state-owned enterprises”, says Silke.

If Ramaphosa is to push through the reforms at Eskom and South African Airlines, he will need to do politically-difficult things such as privatise or retrench workers.

With COSATU onboard this should be easier.

Another reason for Ramaphosa to hold COSATU close is, ironically, to tamp down the push from the populist Left, a populism visible both in the opposition EFF and elements of the Zuma-faction of the ANC.

But Cosatu Central Executive Committee statement released after Ramaphosa’s announcement was frank; they want to see delivery on the economic front.

  • “We challenge this new administration to lead the fight against crass materialism and corruption.”
  • “We hope that this administration will represent a turning point against the scourge of corruption, use of patronage, use of state institutions for the agenda of personal accumulation”.

Bottom Line: With an economy tanking and bad GDP figures released this week, Ramaphosa needs all the help he can get

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