Frontline Africa Advisory

COSATU risks being obsolete if it does not properly re-assess its position within the tripartite alliance
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COSATU risks being obsolete if it does not properly re-assess its position within the tripartite alliance

2022 is a crucial year for the future of South Africa’s largest trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The federation is due to hold its 14th National Congress in September 2022.

COSATU is rapidly facing obsolescencein the country’s socio-economic and political lexicon. This is as it finds themselves increasingly on the periphery of conversations on solutions to the country’s socio-economic challenges. This is amid the weakening of the federation and its affiliates’ bargaining power with government and private employers, as most employees have no confidence in labour unions and their impact in addressing their challenges.

Writing in the Daily Maverick, Karl Cloete, former Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) writes that “workers employed in the South African economy and in the public service have a union density of 23%, meaning that about 77% of workers employed do not belong to a union”. In addition, most workers belonging to labour unions occupy less or semi-skilled positions.

As a member of the Tripartite Alliance,COSATU is stuck in a precarious position. It enjoys proximity to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and, to that extent, it can be said that it has been co-governing with the ruling party. Although the federation often pats itself in the back for helping introduce a set of progressive, worker-friendly labour relations frameworks in the post-apartheid South Africa, its pact with the ANC has been characterised by elements of accommodation and struggle, often tilted in favour of the governing party. The outcomes of COSATU’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) in May 2022 demonstrated the extent of the federation’s frustrations and sense of powerlessness with the actions of its ally, the ANC in government. The CEC statement was quite blunt in its analysis of the South African government over the past 24 years, when it noted that “this state, whilst it represents an advance over the apartheid capitalist one in the sense that it has reduced the brutality of exploitation, has nevertheless facilitated the deepening and escalation of exploitation under more humane conditions.” 

Instead of outlining the federation’s role is coming up with solutions to issues facing South Africa such as the high unemployment rate, poverty, the impact of electricity, food and fuel costs on the poor and working class, the CEC seemed more pre-occupied with ANC issues more than the plight of its constituency, the workers.

Over the years, COSATU has come to resemble a step-sibling in the Tripartite Alliance, only to be taken seriously during election seasons.  Along with the South African Communist Party (SACP), COSATU has been calling for a reconfiguration of the Alliance so that all the partners are on an equal footing. Its failure to achieve this reconfiguration is entirely its own fault. In its bid to maintain the relationship with the ANC, COSATU has lost itself and sacrificed its constituency. The involvement of its leaders in the ANC’s factional battles has also compromised its position and ability to be critical of the ruling party and its failures in government. As a result, COSATU can no longer be relied upon to robustly advance the interests of workers in South Africa.

So where to for COSATU?

To a large extent, the current woes experienced by South Africa’s labour unions are of their own making. As we have seen with government and the Sibanye Stillwater wage negotiations, labour unions no longer have the hold they used to have over employers. In recent years, government has come out swinging against the wage demands of labour unions affiliated with COSATU in the public sector and came out unscathed.

COSATU and its affiliates are paying the price for years of gatekeeping in some sectors and creating difficult conditions for mass employment. It has been stated over time by analysts and investors that the high cost of labour and a rigid labour regime in South Africa is an impediment to investment. Unions have not adjusted their strategies to respond more appropriately to challenges brought about by globalisation and COVID-19 to some extent, with its technological advances, the pulverisation of the nation state and the resultant emasculation of working-class power.  The working-class power is so interwoven with the future of work that unless the unions consciously apply themselves to these unfolding challenges, they will find it hard to survive.  

COSATU needs to remind itself that as a member of the governing alliance in South Africa, it exists to look after the interests of not only those who are employed but also those who are actively seeking jobs to better their lives. As matters stand, the organisation will struggle for new members, unless the economy can create more jobs. Achieving this objective requires balancing not only the interests of its members, but those of its potential future members. This requires sacrifice in the short term, and a proper reassessment of the prevailing dynamics in the labour sector.

As the federation goes into its 14th National Congress, COSATU needs to be honest with itself to assure its relevance in years to come. At the congress, COSATU will have to decide if it seeks to reclaim its position as a formidable force of the working class or a member of an outdated alliance that only serves the ANC.

Written by Calvin Matlou

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