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South Africa: Cosatu must be united, but not at all costs – Zwelinzima Vavi

Posted on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 15:22

The Africa Report: With its current troubles, can the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) really celebrate its 30th anniversary in December 2015?

That’s a nightmare isn’t it? As a younger general secretary, I always envisaged that part of the plan was to grow the federation to four million members by 2015. We’re going to the 30th anniversary [with the] complete opposite. Cosatu membership has grown a meagre 200,000 between the last congress and now. We should not be where we are. That keeps me awake almost every night.

Did you think it would come to this?

I never imagined that Cosatu could be divided over a president who spends R250m ($21.8m) on a private residence and that Cosatu can’t be united in its rejection of that. Never did I anticipate that we could be divided over the corruption inside the trade unions.

I never thought that you can have a phenomenon where unions cannot meet for three years – the national executive committee [did not meet] because of divisions linked to corruption allegations against the leadership.

Now that the largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), has been expelled, what are its chances of getting back into Cosatu?

That’s political. You can’t dismiss 300,000 workers and expect business as usual thereafter. There can be no unity of Cosatu that excludes NUMSA or metal workers and so on. I don’t accept that. If we accept that, then we must accept that Cosatu has failed.

Will Cosatu organise a national congress this year?

I hope we’ll see a federation decision very early instead of allowing the current status quo to run for months and months. You can’t have an organisation of two million people whose leadership de-focuses altogether away from the interest of ordinary workers.

Cosatu remains Africa’s largest union federation but is unlikely to stay that way. What is your message to trade unionists on the continent?

Every African trade union has gone through this same way of being split by external political interests. They are fragmented. In Zimbabwe, they’re fragmented. In Zambia, it’s happened. In Angola, they’re also fragmented.

In Namibia, the trade union movement is now a docile friend of government that is not capable of bargaining on behalf of members. In South Africa, we are being fragmented. This is very sad. I had hoped that all of us having looked at what is happening in the rest of the African continent would avoid it, but fragmentation is happening.

What is ahead for Zwelinzima Vavi?

The fight is very clear to me. Cosatu must be united, but not at all costs. I don’t want a sweetheart union, and I would rather move away from any organisation that has turned into an apologist for the government. I don’t want a darling of an employer, be it in the private or the public sector.

I want to hopefully contribute as part of a collective to ensuring that we can present to workers a united organisation, fighting for their interests. Where I would be individually doesn’t matter. What matters is that workers must have an independent, militant, fighting, socialist-oriented trade union movement that cannot be manipulated by any external interest to the detriment of its members. ●

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