The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) concluded its 13th National Congress on the 20th of September 2018 in Midrand. It was a historical conference in that the Federation elected its 1st ever woman President in its 32-year history. The newly elected President of the Federation, Ms Zingiswa Losi delivered her maiden address and outlined her plans for reviving the declining federation, as well as implementing the resolutions made at the conference. Part of her mission is to increase COSATU’s membership base and unionise more than 10 million employees, who are mainly in the private sector. She has a massive challenge ahead of her, considering that she has inherited a limping horse and is expected to win a race. Even if she can argue that it is a marathon and not a sprint, COSATU does not look like it has endurance.
Resolutions adopted by the Federation include the following: COSATU will push for the establishment of a comprehensive social security system; amend its constitution to allow it to take control of affiliated unions that are experiencing leadership problems and divisions.
The Federation also stated that it plans to ramp up its realisation of a one federation for all unions in the country. This is akin to a pipe dream, as the federation is losing some grip on the South African labour landscape. COSATU has shed over 300 000 members in the past 3 years, although that number can mostly be attributed to the expelling of National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) and exit of Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU).
COSATU now must contest the space with the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA), National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) and the rapidly rising South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) led by Zwelinzima Vavi. SAFTU has 30 affiliates boasting over 700 000 members with NUMSA and FAWU acting as anchor affiliates with over 70% of the federation’s membership.
Compared to COSATU, SAFTU seems to be making the right noises that resonate with workers and ordinary South Africans. In April of this year, SAFTU led a march against the enacting of a national minimum wage of R20 per hour or R3 500 per month. COSATU did not join the march and stated that ‘the minimum wage was part of a bigger discussion to ultimately create comprehensive social security net for families who didn’t earn enough’. It was on that basis that COSATU signed off on the minimum wage as it was proposed.
COSATU’s alliance with the African National Congress (ANC) also makes its dream to unite all workers under one banner near impossible. Firstly, not all workers support or vote for the ANC. Secondly, as part of the tripartite alliance, COSATU has found itself caught in between some of the policies of the ruling party and the needs of its members, which at times has resulted in the federation being mute on some important issues.
With new leadership at the helm, it remains to be seen if COSATU will start raising its voice within the tripartite alliance and put the needs of its members first. Or will it be business as usual, where the leader of COSATU panders to the leader of the ANC to the detriment of the workers. COSATU has already pledged to campaign and support the ANC in next year’s general elections. If the ANC achieves a decisive victory with the assistance of COSATU, will the labour federation use that as a bargaining chip to achieve some wins for its members? We will see when the times comes.
Perhaps for COSATU to fully realise its mandate it must break away from the tripartite and go solo. For now, we will applaud the milestones the Federation has achieved at the conference and hope it is the first of many to come.