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Article by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary, COSATU, to mark the 15th Anniversary of COSATU`s formation

30 November 2000

Engaging the Democratic Transition

COSATU was formed in 1985 in the midst of the state of emergency, which saw a wave of resistance by the organs of people’s power that took mass work to heights never seen in the history of our struggle.

Since then, our country has seen major changes - above all, the transition to democratic rule in 1994. This transition has faced COSATU with major challenges. We need to interrogate how we have served workers and the revolution in this period.

Forged in the struggle

When the third state of emergency was launched, with thousands of activists in prison, the effects began to show on the democratic movement. COSATU remained relatively unscathed, holding the freedom and democracy flag high in the sky.

For a considerable period, with the ANC and SACP banned and many UDF leaders in prison or forced to operate underground, with masses itching to fight and confront apartheid, COSATU remained a central political voice for the aspirations of our people.

In this period, COSATU was forced to operate like a fire extinguisher. To us, it made no sense to concentrate on shop floor issues when we knew very well that most of those battles could not be won without first destroying the apartheid system itself.

We had to lead community struggles, ranging from protests against the latrine toilet system, to peasant demands for more land, to rural communities crying out for roads and other infrastructure, to student struggles for dynamic, free and compulsory education.

This situation helped the federation develop all-round capacity and cadres, who during the working hours led bitter factory floor struggles and in their leisure time were in the forefront of community struggles for development, against black community councillors, for freedom and the unbanning of the ANC and the SACP, the release of political prisoners and the return of exiles.

This fire-extinguisher role also caused problems, which were discussed in the federation. From the call for better-focused debates in the late 1980s, to the "many caps" discussion at the beginning of the 1990s, interactions in COSATU reflected the challenges and proposals on how best to manage them.

The type of cadre COSATU developed in those early years was truly well rounded, indicating the role they played on every front of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). These cadres are symbolised by the late President of NEHAWU, Bheki Mkhize, who was murdered in 2000 in Mahlabathini in KwaZulu Natal by the untransformed police. An organiser, a mobiliser, an educator and agitator, an excellent presenter, able to articulate policy excellently, a fighter, a disciplinarian - a complete revolutionary.

Our challenge is to continuously build more all-round cadres and revolutionaries who can replace Bheki Mkhize, Elijah Barayi, Sam Ntuli, Sam Ntambane and countless other worker martyrs.

The transition to democracy

During the transition to democracy, there was widespread speculation that the unions in South Africa would find it hard to adapt to the challenge of moving from being organs of resistance to become strategic drivers of transformation. For many organisations in civil society, the unbanning of political organisations in 1990 created immense uncertainty. The principal contradiction prior this period was very clear - national oppression.

In contrast, in the period of negotiation and reconciliation, there was a sense of confusion about the role of former UDF affiliates and NGOs. Many formations were weakened and some disappeared altogether.

Experience elsewhere pointed to a dwindling role for civil society, including the trade unions, after independence. In much of the rest of Africa, unions that had been in the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle became subservient to the liberation movement and subsequently to the democratic state.

Suddenly they were told that they represent only the "narrow" interest of the organised working class, while the leaders of the liberation movements represented an undefined national interest.

In the socialist countries, in particular in Eastern Europe, trade unions were converted to transmission belts of the state and ceased to be the voice of the workers. They were told, and believed, that in a so-called workers’ state it would be counter- revolutionary to be independent; instead, the interests of workers must be subordinated to the interests of the revolution.

Yet in some of these states, nothing was revolutionary or had any trace of workers’ power or a workers’ state. What was prevalent was the accumulation of wealth by the new elite, whilst the living standards of workers and the working class deteriorated, sometimes becoming worse than under a capitalist system.

With the unbanning of the ANC, the SACP and other organisations, COSATU also had to make strategic choices. It could retain its character as a transformative and engaging formation, jealously guarding its independence. At the other extreme, it could become a mere transmission belt, feeding workers with empty revolutionary rhetoric while invariably supporting the policies adopted by the new democratic state.

This matter was hotly debated at the Fourth National Congress in 1991. At this congress, COSATU formally joined the revolutionary strategic alliance of the ANC and SACP, replacing SACTU, which was disbanded after being unbanned.

At this Congress, COSATU opted to be part of the historic march to defeat apartheid - a system declared by the democratic world as a crime against humanity. At the same time, it retained its independence, making clear that the tripartite alliance was formed by three independent organisations.

The parties to the alliance are answerable to their constituencies, although, in the interest of forming a united and coordinated onslaught, they agree to reach agreement as far as possible in order to pursue the goals of the revolution.

Over the last ten years, and especially since 1994 - the period of democratic rule - the decision to join the alliance has been severely tested. It is important to reflect on COSATU’s adjustment to the democratic transition. We must interrogate how the federation has represented workers, and what dilemmas confronted it.

Trade unions and class struggle after 1994

A cardinal lesson from the past six years is that establishing a democratic government does not guarantee that the working class agenda will prevail. South Africa remains a highly stratified society, and different social classes jostle for power and hegemony.

In these circumstances, as we address the national question, which was the principal contradiction throughout the liberation struggle, the class contradiction increasingly forms the main contradiction in society.

This situation means that, as the democratic government struggles to transform our society and economy, it comes under enormous pressure from capital both at home and abroad. Although the democratic forces won the elections, they have not established hegemony in the state machinery, the media or business.

At the same time, class differences among the formerly oppressed have grown dramatically, with a minority of black people joining the capitalist class as managers or owners, while most of our people face rising joblessness and poverty.

The process of class formation affects both the ANC and COSATU. In pursuit of their class interests, some in the ANC will always oppose whatever workers and COSATU do or say.

Equally, some in COSATU see the ANC and the NDR as a complete sell out. Deepening class contradictions manifest themselves, too, in the state and the broader democratic alliance.

In short, South Africa remains a capitalist society, necessitating an independent trade union movement to represent the voice of the workers. The trade union movement must contest power within civil society and maintain pressure on the democratic state. If the pressure from the left does not counter the pressure from the right, we will end up on a one-way street to neoliberalism, sacrificing the workers and the interest of the working class as a whole.

Modes of engagement

COSATU has proved to be a significant force in the economic, social and development policy debates since South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. We have mobilised advocates of social transformation, campaigning for policies and strategies aimed at eradicating the apartheid legacy of inequality and underdevelopment. To that end, we have had to combine engagement in a variety of forums with mass action.

The real debate in this period has not been whether to engage, but rather how - what is the most effective strategy for working people in this country to advance their interest?

Engagement does not presume success, nor is it free of dangers and/or contradictions. The reality we are engaging is complex and dynamic, and therefore poses new challenges and contradictions for the Federation.

The complexity of our environment necessitates a sophisticated response from the Federation. The critics of COSATU’s engagement strategy from the left and the right have both tended to simplify the challenges we face.

The ultra-left view is that our government has sold out, suggesting that COSATU should play a pure oppositional role, which is permanent, and without an end. COSATU’s refusal to adopt this knee-jerk posture is itself seen as a sell out.

On the other hand, COSATU’s active engagement to support processes of transformation has met opposition, and not only from the forces entrenched by apartheid. Even within the Alliance, conservative forces argue that "objective conditions" require a shift from the RDP vision. If COSATU criticises their conservative policies, they say it borders on the counter- revolutionary.

These forces seem to yearn for what they saw in Eastern Europe, where COSATU would be transformed into a harmless and uncritical lap dog - the state’s sweetheart, but the worst enemy of workers.

The positions COSATU has adopted in engaging with this transition have been informed by three inter-related objectives:

  • Bread and butter issues: Taking forward the immediate concerns of over 1.8 million COSATU members, both as workers in South Africa’s mines, factories, shops, offices, hospitals and farms, and as breadwinners for families and communities facing the ravages of poverty, unemployment and other social problems.
  • Strategic engagement: Pursuing the agenda of transformative trade unionism engaging with government departments, the legislature and tripartite forums in order to promote progressive social and economic policies.
  • Democratisation and social transformation: Through social mobilisation and political engagement, advancing the agenda of the NDR, in particular the transformation of the state and the economy in the face of opposition from powerful conservative forces.

COSATU’s beacon in the post-1994 period has been the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), adopted by the tripartite alliance as the platform for South Africa’s first democratic government. The RDP outlined a programme for systematically transforming society in a range of strategic areas. It aimed at ensuring that, for the first time, the resources of the state were harnessed for development rather than oppression and minority privilege.

In the post-1994 political landscape, COSATU has attempted a policy of open engagement to advance the interest of working people. It has had to combine advocacy and mass struggle. This engagement has happened through a range of institutions and processes, including:

  • through structures of the tripartite alliance of the ANC, SACP and COSATU and SANCO;

    Advocacy in Parliament, particularly by engaging portfolio committees;

    Engagement with government departments and ministries;
  • Engagment through discussions and negotiations in the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC);
  • Engagement through national initiatives such as the Presidential Jobs Summit, and the National Framework Agreements on State Owned Enterprises and local government;
  • Local and provincial engagements, including provincial and local development forums, and
  • Most recently, through the Presidential Working Groups and the Millennium Labour Council.


If not properly managed, the politics of engagement risk over- reliance on boardroom politics, leaving the masses behind.

Alienation of members is a special danger of the engagement strategy, together with the development of "yellow unionism" where we act merely as an insurance company for workers running into problems with employers.

Furthermore, as in any engagement, at key strategic moments COSATU has been confronted by the need to make some compromises. If the resulting choices are not fully explained to members, this can lead to demobilisation, disillusionment and general confusion within our ranks. This situation provides fertile ground for agents provocateurs to sow division.

To avoid these hazards, COSATU has argued, in particular in the 1999 Special National Congress, that we must build our strength in two ways.

First, we must be able to keep members mobilised and militant, creating a sense amongst workers that we alone are the masters of our destiny.

Second, we must develop the capacity to turn successful mass action into victories at the negotiations table through well- researched and technical arguments. This strategy led to the decision to restructure COSATU, with the establishment of our research institute, NALEDI, in 1994, and the Policy Unit in 1999. So far our dual strategy of combining mass action with policy engagement has served us well.

Some challenges of the transition

The transition faces us with the challenge of strengthening the alliance to take forward the NDR. At the same time, we have to maintain pressure on the state to counter the pressure from capital. These challenges mean we must manage a range of contradictions and conflicts.

COSATU members’ interests are not antagonistic to those of the ANC’s constituencies. On the contrary, organised workers constitute the primary motive force of liberation and transformation. In the broader sense, the working class - formal and informal workers and those they support - includes the majority of South Africans.

But as the leading party in government, the ANC faces constant pressure from capital, and must make choices on how to manage contesting class interests and forces. Sometimes we have to exert pressure in order to counter pressure from capital. In some cases, too, the ANC tries merely to mediate between labour and capital - a strategy that we cannot accept.

Another challenge is that public-sector unions have to confront the state as an employer, while being in a forefront of transformation of the public service. This poses specific challenges.

Transformation and democratisation of the state mean fundamental changes in work organisation and service delivery. For example, to spearhead the equalisation of services between communities, workers must be redeployed into areas that apartheid neglected.

This comes at a high price from the human and family point of view. Agreeing to be redeployed is itself a huge personal sacrifice. This example shows how unions in the public sector had to adjust from simple opposition to the more complex task of transforming the state.

Throughout this process, the more conservative staff associations attempted to gain mileage from members’ discontent at having to deal with changes and redeployment.

Despite this, our unions have steadfastly supported transformation and at the same time have enjoyed a massive growth in popularity amongst workers.

A particular problem for public-sector affiliates is to manage the impact of fiscal restrictions. The budget cuts brought about by the GEAR affect all South Africans by harming services - but they spell massive job losses in the public sector. For the Federation, it is particularly critical to work to change the overall fiscal policy so that our affiliates do not end up dealing with this broad political and social issue narrowly in the bargaining chamber.

The democratic transition has also had an impact on COSATU and its affiliates.

One of the main changes was the need to develop innovative mechanisms to realise our vision of an economy that is not only in private hands. To that end, we have to both support the state sector and develop new forms of ownership.

The union investment companies were established with the aim of creating social capital to be harnessed for social development objectives. This experiment has not always functioned well.

In some instances, investment companies have led to a culture of "business unionism", with a confusion of roles and conflict of interests. Unions have to protect members against retrenchments as a result of privatisation or outsourcing, while at the same time their investment companies are bidding for the new contracts.

For this reason, the inaugural Central Committee in 1998, as well as both the Special National Congress and the 7th National Congress paid special attention to the need to rein in and control the union investment companies, ensuring that they fulfil their original mandate.

The transition so far: an assessment

Very few formations can, after their first fifteen years of existence, boast of such strengths as our movement.

Unlike many organisations that were weakened by the transition and even exist today in name only, COSATU has in fact gained more strength.

By adapting carefully to the new challenges we face, we have managed to steer the transition period together with our alliance partners largely in a progressive route. In the process we have deepened the political hold on power, transformed the state and begun to change the lives of our people to the better.

Every South African today enjoys democracy - the rights to assembly, freedom of speech, to elect the representatives of their choice, to form and join organisations, to stand for the highest political office of the land.

For the first time, millions have access to adequate health care, water, electricity, education and land, and we are working to extend and improve these rights.

Workers have scored many victories through the transformation of apartheid legislation. We have won the right to strike, to form and join unions, to bargain and to conclude union security agreements such the agency and closed shop. These rights are all enshrined in the constitution.

They are the victories of our revolution, which, as we celebrate COSATU ’s fifteen years of existence, we equally celebrate.

On balance the assessment of the first years of democratic governance shows that while there have been serious setbacks, significant gains have been made through the strategy of active and intense engagement.

COSATU must remain the conscience of our nation, speaking out not only for our immediate members but also for the broader working class.

We must ensure that government has the political base to resist blackmail by foreign and local business. At the same time, we must constantly scrutinise our strategies to ensure that they effectively advance our objectives.

Naturally, we cannot avoid mistakes, due to subjective limitations or misreading the objective situation; but by ensuring the broadest possible discussion of the issues inside and outside our ranks, we can minimise these problems.

Only through engagement can we test the validity and correctness of our policies, refining and developing them further.

As we celebrate our 15th anniversary we are confident of our past and confident about our future.

The giant that emerged in 1985 continues to grow from strength to strength. In order to maintain our organisation intact, we must continue to be vigilant and keep our leadership accountable.

COSATU’s source of strength is its two million members. It is imperative that they participate in shaping COSATU policies and in holding the leadership accountable.