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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Shopsteward Editorial Note

7 August 2015

As we go to the Special National Congress, has been going through a number of challenges which on amongst others include lack of solidarity amongst unions; the proliferation and the threat of deregistration of unions; lack of organisational, political and ideological training; Confusing roles between affiliates and the federation: Abuse of the concept of autonomy of affiliates; Obsession about being big by all means and at all costs; Labelling, mistrust and suspicions; The use of courts to solve both political and organisational issues; Use of the tactic of boycotting meetings as a leverage to subvert democratic outcomes and undermining the democratic processes and decisions of the organisation; Usage of media to attack the decisions of constitutional structures, including the leaking of documents as part of undermining and attacking the organisation; Creation of factions; Constitutional breaches in the federation and breaches on the Alliance Protocols; Emergence of personality cults which came with the King Maker mentality; the Cancer of Corruption and the undermining of the Founding Principles of the Federation.

We have also noted that as we go to the Special National Congress there were a few unprecendent incidences, which were worth noting. These include the following on amongst others:

  1. In the past COSATU CEC has expelled Affiliates namely SADSAWU, SADNU and CWUSA for their inability to honour their obligation to pay affiliation fees as required by the COSATU constitution. It is the first time in our history to expel an affiliation for defying the founding principles of the federation. Again this was done in terms of the constitution after the union in question (NUMSA) blatantly violated the founding principle of the federation of one union one industry and had ignored the repeated pleas to reverse its decisions to extend its scope to other union’s scope with an intention to liquidate them. Now there are COSATU leaders who are supporting this union despite its wrong action.
  2. The CEC has in the past dismissed worker National Office Bearers namely comrade Peter Malepe (who was forced to tender his resignation at a Special CEC that was specially convene to discuss his matter) and Willy Madisha including comrade Joe Nkosi who had to resign at a point of facing accusation of bringing the organisation into disrepute but it is the first time that the CEC had to dismiss the official in the name of the General Secretary for violating the federation’s constitution including the fact that he was facing many other disciplinary charges. .
  3. It is not for the first time for the federation to convene the Special National Congress. We have convened a number of Special National Congresses between 1988 and 1999. The difference is that the previous ones were convened by the CEC and its agenda and preparations were done by the CEC. It is worth noting that these Special National Congresses only discussed issues that they were convened for. On this one, it is the first time we are convening it under the request by one third of COSATU affiliates. Strange enough four of those unions who requested the SNC are working tirelessly to undermine the same Special National Congress. In fact there has been a declaration made by the same grouping that there would be a new federation born on the 13th and 14 July, which are the dates of our Special National Congress.
  4. It is the first time that we would have two (2) congresses in one year at the cost of about R12 million for COSATU and many thousands rands for affiliates. This is a deliberate move under the pretext to exercise the constitutional right to financially liquidate the federation.
  5. For the first time in the history of the federation we could not hold a scheduled Central Commitee because there was a stalemate between the former General Secretary and the Political Commission on the context and content of the political report of the CEC towards the Central Committee.
  6. It is also for the first time in our history that we have unions namely FAWU, SACCAWU and SAFPU and SASAWU who took a conscious decision to boycott the CEC on the basis of a democratic decision taken by the CEC to expel NUMSA. These unions were part of the decision but because the decision was not in their favour they decided to boycott the CEC.

All these challenges emerged in the context in which we have come to an obvious conclusion that the character of COSATU as a federation of trade unions was being contested.

This contest is not for its own sake but there were serious underlying intentions to contest the liberation movement as a whole and in this context COSATU is seen as a gateway to the movement. Our observation has been that almost all splinter organisations, which came from the ANC and those who have operated outside the Congress movement have always seen the trade union movement as the most strategic platform to contest as part of their intention to contest the ANC, the Alliance and the National Democratic Revolution.

It is therefore not surprising that when COSATU was launched in 1985 the apartheid regime sought to dislodge and destroy COSATU using sponsored violence by Inkatha Freedom Party, which in its early years had been formed with consent from the ANC but later chose to collaborate with the Apartheid regime.

The IFP, funded by the apartheid regime through Adriaan Vlok’s departmental funds, established a right-wing labour federation, The United Workers Union of South Africa (UWUSA), as a direct counter to COSATU.

Another organization, which was a splinter organisation from the ANC was the UDM formed after the expulsion of Bantu Holomisa who together with former National Party member, Roelf Meyer, formed the United Democratic Movement (UDM). Part of the UDM’s modus operandi has been to articulate COSATU policies as its own policies whilst at the same time working to weaken COSATU unions. The NUM became the target of the UDM, which facilitated the formation of workers committee and such bogus structures as Five Modada all intended to weaken the NUM as one of the biggest COSATU affiliate.

Similarly COPE, which the 2008 splinter from the ANC also declared its intentions to establish a labour federation directly aimed at weakening and undermining COSATU. This is interestingly being done by people who had in the past claimed to subscribe to the idea of one single labour federation for South Africa, but in their desperation to undermine worker and alliance unity they have thrown those principles out of the window!

The most recent of these splinter groups from the ANC has been the EFF, which also made similar pronouncement on their intention to form a labour federation, which would replace COSATU.

As we go to the Special National Congress scheduled from the 13th - 14th July 2015, the federation had taken a decision to expel NUMSA, which was one of its biggest affiliates for undermining the COSATU policies in particular our founding principle of One Union One Industry.

The Federation had also taken a decision to expel its general secretary for undermining the constitution and the COSATU code of conduct.

In the process COSATU unions were mobilised to support the expelled leader and the expelled affiliate and a campaign was launched to attack and weaken the federation.

Both NUMSA leaders and the expelled former general secretary have in the process made pronouncement about their intention to form a new federation.

Learning from Our History

These conjectural challenges forced us to consult those who went through similar challenges and the words by Karl Marx came when he said that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”- The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx 1852. These words forced us to revisit the history of the collective history of trade unionism in South African and in particular the history of COSATU as part of drawing lessons to respond to the challenges of the moment. We had thought that visiting this history may help to provide a prism through which we are able to properly understand the current challenges and how best to confront them by learning from our forbearers.

Almost all the trade union federations, which came before COSATU became relevant and supported by workers on the basis of their militancy in forcing employers to accede to workers’ demands and to improve their working conditions. Many of these trade union formations understood both theoretically and in practice the interconnectedness between the core trade union workplace struggles and their role in the national liberation struggle as led by political formations such as the ANC and the SACP who had also played a role in the formation of these trade union federations.

Common amongst the reasons, which led to the demise of these trade union formations was the inability to strike a balance between their core trade union role and their political responsibility, which came with their inevitable role in the national liberation struggle.

The Industrial and Commercial Union - ICU

The Industrial and Commercial Union was formed in 1919 at the Cape under the leadership of Clement Kadalie. In the period between 1927-1928 the ICU claimed more than 150 000 members. It started off as an effective militant and reliable representative of workers but later in its life the ICU failed to provide effective activist leadership. Amongst others it failed to develop strategies and tactics on how it was to proceed towards the realization of its socio-economic demands. It also failed to promote strike action where it was clearly warranted. For example, when spontaneous strikes took place at the Witwatersrand and in Durban in 1927, the organization was unable to lend support and provide leadership.

Development of Factions within the ICU leading to the disintegration of ICU

With all the attendant challenges, two factions developed within the ICU constituted in the main by those who supported more militant action, and those who advocated moderation. This, together with financial problems, was largely responsible for the gradual decline of the ICU. After Kadalie resigned in January 1929 and Natal banished Champion for three years in 1930, the ICU disintegrated and died out in the early 1930s.

Nonetheless, even though the ICU disintegrated, it remains a point of historical reference in the emergence of militant trade unionism in South Africa because it helped to make blacks more aware of their exploitation. In addition, it cut across traditional loyalties in its attempt to unite black people as workers.

The decline and disappearance of the ICU did not mark the end of the organized black trade union movement or joint workers’ action in industry, and various black trade unions followed in its wake. A contributory factor was the introduction of a Wage Board, to which organized labour could make representations on matters concerning wages and working conditions.

The Council of Non-European Trade Unions

In November 1941, African workers (after the death of the ICU) continued to maximize their efforts to consolidate and bring together African trade unions to form a federation to be called the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU). However, these trade unions were not recognized by the South African government or the employers. Two groups of trade unions joined to form the CNETU and this became South Africa largest trade union federation at the time. The first group, the Joint Committee of African Trade Unions was under the leadership of Max Gordon, the secretary of the Laundry Workers Union. The second group, the Coordinating Committee of African Trade Unions, was led by Gana Makabeni. He was the leader of the ICU and later secretary of the African Clothing Workers Union.

Moses Kotane, (as comrade Cyril Ramaposa did towards the formations of COSATU) a member of the ANC and SACP presided over the inaugural conference. The conference resolved that if the working conditions of the African workers were to be properly addressed and improved, strong black trade unions had to be set up and guided by the coordinating body. As a result, CNETU was formed to address the poor working conditions of African workers.

After its inception, CNETU also developed strong working ties with the ANC and the SACP. Though it was formed to address the issues affecting workers, CNETU had limited participation in political activities of the 1950s. It openly threw its support behind the demonstrations and stay-aways that were called by the liberation movements. Realizing that their struggle in isolation would not bring forth the anticipated results in South Africa, CNETU joined unions around the world in establishing the first progressive International Trade Union Centre (ITUC). The ITUC claimed to represent workers throughout the world. CNETU was again part of history when the World Federation of Trade Unions was launched in London in 1945.

Formation of actions leading to the Collapse of the CNETU

CNETU subsequently experienced problems that culminated in its collapse. Four years after its formation it showed signs of decline and its membership began to dwindle. There were a number of reasons for this.

  1. The appointment of J.B Marks as president in 1945, in the place of Gana Makabeni. At the time Marks was the chairman of the African Mine Workers Union. Makabeni also lost the support of the most progressive elements within the Council as a result of the disappointing reformist policies he adopted. One of these was to work together with the Department of Labour officials. After he had been replaced, Makabeni tried to form a splinter group called the Council of African Trade Unions (CATU) with limited success.
  2. In 1946 CNETU participated in a potentially crippling strike called by the African Mineworkers Union (AMU). The Union demanded a minimum wage of ten shillings a day, family housing, paid leave and other improvements; failing which a general strike would be their last resort. In June, CNETU emerged to announce its support for a strike by mineworkers. On 12 August 1946 about 60 000 to 70 000 miners stayed away from work. CNETU decided to fulfill its pledge and called a sympathetic general strike the following day. The government dealt harshly with the strikers. The police were deployed in townships, at stations and at bus terminals. The strike destroyed AMU and seriously crippled CNETU. In the following year CNETU lost 22 affiliates.
  3. There were internal structural problems in CNETU; the federation was built on a shaky foundation. Most of the trade unions affiliated to CNETU failed to organize themselves properly, with members changing their jobs from one factory to another over a short period of time.
  4. Another internal problem was caused by CNETU’s political position. The leadership was divided into three basic political orientations. The first camp supported the South African Communist Party while the second camp supported the Trotskyites. Another group supported the African National Congress. This division was centered on what method to apply when waging a strike. Daniel Koza from the Trotskyite camp and leader of the Commercial and Distributive Workers Union favoured militant action. Koza and his group deepened the division when they formed the Progressive Trade Union Group within CNETU. This group attempted to take over the leadership of the federation during its 1945 annual conference but was subsequently expelled after its failure. Does this sound familiar?
  5. The final reason that contributed to the decline of CNETU was the legislation implemented by the government to regulate liberation movements and African trade unions. The first government measure that weakened the CNETU was the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. Most of the leaders of the trade unions were arrested in terms of this act. Trade unions were also banned. CNETU’s final blow from the government was the introduction of the Native Labour Act.

The South African Congress of Trade Unions - SACTU

With the introduction of apartheid laws, such laws as the Suppression of Communism Act it hit unions hard. Black workers left the Trades & Labour Council to join the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA), which had an ambivalent relation to Black unions, often excluding them or keeping them in check in favour of its white members. In 1955 the more progressive members of TUCSA formed an alliance with CNETU to establish the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), which was founded on the 5th March 1955 at a Conference in Johannesburg with a declaration titled “Organize or Starve” and concluded with a resolve that “this body shall determinedly seek to further and protect the interests of all workers, and that its guiding motto shall be the universal slogan of working class solidarity: ‘AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL! ‘

By 1959 SACTU had a membership of 46,000 in 35 affiliates. After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the ANC and SACP jointly formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, and most of SACTU’s leaders, who were also members of the ANC, joined the underground military organisation. But state repression saw many SACTU leaders and members arrested during the early 1960s, and by 1965 SACTU was decimated, leading to frenetic debates about the relationship between unions and the liberation movements.

The Federation of South African Trade Unions - FOSATU

It was the spontaneous wave of strikes, which was started by dockworkers in Durban in 1973, which led to the renewal of union activity in the country. The state was unable to stem this renewal, and indeed it conceded that Black unions were there to stay when it implemented the recommendations of the Wiehahn Commission, allowing Black unions to become registered for the first time since 1956. The years from 1973 to 1985 saw a surge of unionism unprecedented in South African history. The launch of Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU) in 1973 was followed in 1974 by that of the Chemical Workers Industrial Union (CWIU) and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). The formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) in 1979 brought another dimension to the union movement: while unions had always been part of the political project to achieve political rights for Blacks, questions about the relationship between unions and the liberation movements abounded ever since the demise of SACTU, and FOSATU saw its mission as the development of an independent union movement that would be more strategic in political engagement. Does this sound familiar?

Emergence of Factions within FOSATU

There were huge differences between the various competing blocs in the union movement, and the divisions were based on a series of issues: whether unions should be general unions or more focused industrial unions; whether they should register; whether they should include white workers; whether they should engage in community politics; and whether they should have direct links to the liberation organisations such as the United Democratic Front (UDF), Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) and others.
The union landscape was populated by a range of blocks; there was FOSATU; there was CUSA, the Black Consciousness-aligned federation; and there were Coloured unions that had on-and-off relations to TUCSA, among others. There was a clear recognition that unions would be more effective if they were united and this recognition led to the process of the dissolution of FOSATU and unity talks began as early as 1979, and accelerated from 1981 to 1985 towards the formation of a new federation.

Formation of COSATU

It is these above mentioned unity talks, which led to the launch of COSATU in 1985 in Durban.

Amongst the initial engagements were the deliberations which took place at the Langa Summit in 8 August 1981, where 100 representatives from 29 unions met to discuss a united response to the newly introduced labour laws which were the attempts to divide unions and tame them into its sweetheart unions. Even these early discussions were not without challenges where unions got divided around the question of being registered or not being registered. There were Congress-aligned unions, which rejected registration and the FOSATU and CUSA-aligned unions who were eager to use the space opened up by registration.

In April 1982 a second union summit on unity was convened in Wilgespruit and it resolved to work towards a new, all-inclusive labour federation. A third summit, held in July 1982 in Port Elizabeth, saw bitter divisions over a range of issues, and failed to move towards agreement for the basis of a broad federation. During this Summit there had emerged a grouping of some seven community based unions who tabled 7 non- negotiable principles at the Summit and were referred to as to as the Magnificent 7, who at some stage walked out leading to the collapse of the Summit. A fourth summit was convened in Athlone in April 1983 where it was agreed that the proposed federation could embrace unions with different policies, and a feasibility committee was set up to look at the issues. By that time the Magnificent Seven had compromised from their non-negotiable seven demands.

On 8th and 9th June 1985, a fifth and which became a final summit was held at Ipeleng in Soweto, where a wide range of unions brought their national executive committees to deliberate on the way forward. Unions aligned to the UDF, Black Consciousness, and representing various positions on the nature of the federation, were represented by 400 delegates. The meeting was chaired by comrade Cyril Ramaphosa (who is also presiding in this process of preserving the integrity of the unity of workers under COSATU) who was then the General Secretary of the NUM, which had broken away from CUSA.

This Summit proposed a tight federation and set out its five founding principle as non-racialism, ‘one union one industry’, worker control, representation on the basis of paid-up membership, and co-operation at national and international level. These are the principles we continue to defend up to this day and they are currently under threat. This matter will be dealt with later.

On 30th November 1985, more than 760 delegates from 33 unions descended on the sports hall of the University of Natal, in Durban, at Howard College campus to inaugurate the new trade union federation. This was followed by a rally, which was held at Kings Park Stadium attended by thousands of workers.

COSATU was born at the time when the political tempo had reached its peak in the country. It was during a state of emergency, which signalled the consolidation of a total onslaught by the apartheid regime against the liberation movement. The federation was attacked by the government and Inkatha, who both reiterated the charge that COSATU was a front for the ANC. This accusation came despite the fact that people from a broad range of organisations had been meeting with the ANC in Lusaka and Harare since 1984, including prominent black and white businessmen and white Apartheid politicians.

One of the most distinguished COSATU campaign was the one launched in May 1987 called the Living Wage Campaign. As part of its attacks against the federation directed at taking away the sting and the strategic initiative from COSATU, the apartheid government declared the day a public holiday on the day planned for action.

COSATU joined the UDF and the NECC in the call for a two-day stay away on 5-6 May 1987, two days set aside by the state for the white general election. More than 2, 5-million people responded to the call. The day after the strike, in the early hours of 7 May, COSATU House was rocked by two bomb blasts. COSATU, NUM, Pwawu, TGWU, Sarwhu and MAWU all lost their head offices. After this incident the SABC launched a campaign of vilification that dared to present the blasts as the work of COSATU itself. Following these state sponsored media attacks the federation launched a ‘HANDS OFF COSATU campaign. It is painful to note that today we have hands off COSATU campaign, not against the Apartheid forces but from those who attack the federation from within. This matter will be elaborated on later.

The formation of COSATU like the federations before it was not without the hand of the SACP and ANC. The ANC, SACP and SACTU had worked to strengthen the UDF-affiliated unions. During the unity talks the SACP and SACTU bluntly instructed the UDF unions (at the time referred to as the magnificent 7) to make whatever compromises were necessary to ensure they were part of the new super-federation when it was formed.

One of the tasks, which were undertaken by the newly elected leadership of the federation included meeting with the ANC in exile. The meeting took place from the 5th - 6th March 1986 and included the ANC, SACTU and COSATU leadership. It is when we looked back at this history that our eyes become wet and salute the generation for leaders, which built COSATU into a force that it has become in society. We also look back and ask is to what has gone wrong when our generation is in charge of the organisation.

It is also important to reflect on this history so that we can understand that the problems we have today are not for the first time but they may be different in terms of form, content and their intent. Throughout its history COSATU has demonstrated resilience and capacity to rise to its challenges and resolved them. We will not fail today. To borrow from comrade Barayi “We have to make it clear to all that... (we will) confront all who stand in (our) way (and) as COSATU will not stand for defeat”


“The character of any organization is naturally and inevitably determined by the content of its activity” - Lenin - what is to be done?”

We are first and foremost a trade union federation and accept in our ranks all those who have come to understand and accept the basic principle of unity of workers in advancing the struggle against employers. We exist to unite workers under the leadership of our federation, to fight for these workers’ rights by securing social and economic justice for all workers; understanding how the economy of the country affects workers and formulating clear policies on how the economy should be restructured in the interests of the working class. Our corresponding primary tasks as the federation is to organise the unorganised workers and build effective trade unions based on the democratic organisation of workers in the factories, mines, shops, farms and other workplaces; organise national industrial trade unions, financed and controlled by their worker members through democratically elected committees; unify national industrial trade unions, under COSATU’s leadership; combat the divisions amongst the workers of South Africa and unite them into strong and confident working class formations; encourage democratic worker organisation and leadership in all spheres of our society together with other progressive sectors of the community; reinforce and encourage progressive international worker contact and solidarity so as to assist one another in our struggles.

We are in alliance with the two political formations the ANC and the SACP whose bond with them was tempered in a struggle to advance the National Democratic Revolution. We, together with the ANC and SACP see the National Democratic Revolution as the key strategic programme as long as the struggle for the liberation of Black people in general and African people in particular have not been fully achieved. The fundamental objective of the NDR is to create a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa. The Alliance and the mass democratic movement agree that the NDR has as its primary task: the defeat of three interrelated and antagonistic contradictions of national oppression, class exploitation and gender triple oppression. In simple terms, black people’s oppression was not only based on their colour, but was equally a function of the inherent exploitation of a special colonial capitalist system.

Central to the programme of the alliance is building a more egalitarian society, where the gap between the various strata in society is not wide as is currently, a situation the movement inherited from the apartheid system.

We remain united behind the vision articulated in the Freedom Charter, which is a vision to reconfigure society on a more equal basis, and this requires radical changes in society. The Charter envisioned a politically and economically inclusive society for all. We cannot be content with the transfer of political power from the minority to the majority. State and mass political power must be used to advance the social and economic transformation of our society. We have attracted millions of workers and drawn thousands of allies into our ranks who through our practical actions and answers we have provided have seen us as a social force for transformation whose goal is democracy and socialism. Our influence on society is based on our organised power, our capacity to mobilise, our socio-economic programme and policies and our participation in political and social alliances. It must be emphasised that we are a federation committed to workers control and democracy, and to maintaining our character as a militant trade union movement.

We pride ourselves for being a federation that is proactive and effective. We have the capacity to negotiate and monitor complex agreements with government and employers. We have a proven track record on our ability to make important contributions to national economic and social development. Our ability to provide practical solutions to the challenges confronting the working class in general and our members in particular is derived from our ability to align and strike a balance between our political responsibility to the transformation of our country and service to our members at the work place. Throughout our existence we have always known that the day we stopped to strike this balance we will cease to be COSATU. We have always understood that we must never bow to the pressures of changing from what we are and must never stop to unleash activities, which are in line with the character of COSATU, the day we change those activities we will automatically change our character. As Lenin put it “the activities of any organisation determines its character.”

Our character was not imposed on us by some Organisational Development consultants but was derived from the very struggles, which shaped us into a militant and radical organisation that has become an envy of both our enemies and friends alike. It is because of this basic understanding of the oneness of our struggle that we are in alliance with the ANC and the SACP. Together with the SACP and the ANC we have been a force, which has provided practical solutions to the challenge confronting this country. In other words we have been a force that has mastered the art of articulating and providing practical answers to the oppressed masses.

Our relationship with the ANC and the SACP is not sentimental but is based on concrete historical and current evidence, which unambiguously show that it is the ANC, the SACP and COSATU who were at the forefront of launching a deadly blow leading to the demise of the Apartheid regime. This relationship continues to be based on the relevance of this liberation force to the challenges of the day. But even this historical relationship with the SACP and the ANC, which was tempered in struggle does not change our character as a trade union federation into a political organisation and in our current form, we will never be a political organisation nor do we have any ambitions to be one. If we want to be a political organisation, we will have to deconstruct ourselves first and reconstitute into a new thing called a political organisation. If we try to conduct ourselves as a political organisation whilst we exist in the current form we are bound for a route to self-destruction.

There is an attempt by some to change COSATU away from being a trade union federation into a political organisation equal to the SACP and the ANC and all other political organisations. In fact this attempt is intended to turn COSATU into an opposition political organisation to the ANC and the SACP. Whilst this agenda will never succeed but it must be said that it makes it even worse to observe that its exponents live with fallacious ambitions of thinking that such a programme can be successfully rammed through the federation with everyone being spectators and its cheerleaders.