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Southern Africa Report Archive

The authors describe the current state of relations between the Congress of SA trade unions (COSATU) and ANC. COSATU gave unconditional support to the ANC for the June elections, and rode through to significant presence in Parliament on its coattails. Now the full endorsement and implementation by the government of the GEAR economic policy reveals much benefit for capital and management, and not for labour. Thus COSATU pays the price of its loyalty such as big job loses which are continuing, and no dent made in the poverty levels of the people. “War has been declared” says the General Secretary, but is COSATU up to the challenge? (jds/jk)

vol 15 no 1

Alliance woes: COSATU pays the price
Marlea Clarke and Carolyn Bassett

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 15 No 1, December 1999
Page 3



Marlea Clarke is completing a doctoral dissertation on the trend toward casualization in the South African service sector. Carolyn Bassett is completing a doctoral dissertation on COSATU and the economic transition.

In our South Africa elections issue, Carolyn Bassett suggested that there was a fundamental divergence in the economic restructuring agendas of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the African National Congress (ANC) that was heightening tensions between the two. These tensions, she suggested, remained unresolved despite COSATU's unconditional support for the ANC in the July 1999 elections [ Southern Africa Report, Vol. 14, No. 3 (May 1999)]. Here, Bassett and Marlea Clarke offer an update on COSATU-ANC relations in the months since.

Two events since the June South African elections have further shown the incompatibility of the objectives of COSATU and the government. The first was something of a "flash-point": a speech delivered at the August 1999 Special COSATU Congress by Terror Lekota on behalf of President Thabo Mbeki. "The recent trend," Lekota said without a trace of irony, "on the part of some highly-placed comrades of ascending platforms or by other ways criticising or agitating against policies and actions of the movement, inside and outside Government, smacks of a lack of revolutionary discipline." Lekota suggested that criticisms of government policies were confusing the liberation movement's mass base, leaving the Alliance open to exploitation by opponents and opposition parties and creating a climate "in which agents provocateur can thrive and advance their counter-revolutionary agendas"[!]

Lekota claimed that "[t]he present debates in our ranks, whether on GEAR [Growth Employment and Redistribution, the government's economic restructuring plan], privatisation or wages, are all tactical in nature. They are resolvable by ongoing debates amongst ourselves." He allowed that comrades were not wrong to draw attention to the weaknesses of GEAR and privatisation, but said that such discussions must take place "primarily within the structures and discipline of our organisations." While there was consensus among observers that some of his comments were directed at specific individuals (such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela), the overall message to COSATU was clear. Criticisms of government policy should be voiced within alliance structures and meetings.

It has become common for Mbeki and other ANC leaders to publicly chastise COSATU member unions and the South African Communist Party (SACP) at their Congresses for daring to express positions publicly that differed from those of the government. What surprised many was that Lekota's speech came so soon after the election. COSATU had, after all, thrown its unconditional support and resources behind the ANC and maintained a strict silence on areas of disagreement.

Lekota's suggestion that a common alliance programme could and should be developed nonetheless seems in question. As Bassett explained in the previous article, attempts on the part of COSATU and the SACP in 1996 and 1997 to work within Alliance structures to reorient ANC policy had proven futile. And in the months since the election, the government has renewed its commitment to the neo-liberal restructuring program. Despite ongoing criticisms regarding the fast pace of tariff reduction, including a one day National Strike on September 8 by the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU), the Minister of Trade and Industry has stated the trade liberalisation will continue. In response to the "Jobs Campaign" recently launched by SACTWU, all the Minister could promise was to "look into the issue." The Minister of Finance, moreover, has reaffirmed that there would be no change in fiscal and monetary policy.

Pessimism of the will

On the floor of the Congress meeting, delegates reacted angrily to Lekota's speech. Both the National Union of Mining Workers and Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) reminded Lekota that the government had ignored the Alliance when they developed GEAR and then implemented it as "non-negotiable." TGWU pointed to weaknesses in the movement and questioned how strengthening the Alliance would resolve these weaknesses. Incoming COSATU President Willie Madisha reiterated that "when workers raise concerns - in this forum - about the direction we are moving in, or, about particular policies which affect them negatively, that is their right. Comrades, if workers cannot raise these things here - in this parliament of the working class - then there is something wrong."

The response to Lekota's speech issued by COSATU specifically objected to the ANC's growing tendency to rebuke other Alliance partners at their Congresses and in front of the media, and for giving the impression that COSATU was ill-disciplined or acting inappropriately whenever it raised concerns about government policy. The resolution also took the ANC to task for failing to facilitate Alliance meetings and processes sufficiently.

But once again, COSATU's statement simultaneously asserted the organization's independence, its continuing commitment to the Alliance, the importance of sharing common visions and objectives, and the need to put these into practice through a common program. COSATU apparently still hopes to be able to use Alliance structures to steer the ANC in a different direction.

The federation seems convinced that the ANC can be persuaded to change its policies, almost as if the neo-liberal tint to the government program was simply a matter of "tactics" within a broader framework of shared goals. "Exaggeration of debates and differences," COSATU's Madisha argued, "in an attempt to portray them as fundamental schisms are partly a result of attempts by reactionary forces to undermine the vision and policy of the movement, in favour of the interests of the powerful in our society."

But only at a level of extreme abstraction or wishful thinking can one really claim that worker interests and the ANC's current economic restructuring program are in tandem, as COSATU leaders including Madisha are well aware. Furthermore, based on recent experience, it is not at all clear how pressuring the ANC from within the Alliance can be expected to produce COSATU's desired results. In fact, it is difficult for the angry accusations by government leaders to mask the fact that it is they, and not COSATU, who have continually acted in bad faith.

Downsizing the public sector

Part of the backdrop of Lekota's intemperate speech was the public sector negotiations that predated the elections but became particularly strained in the months that followed. The dispute began in January 1999, when the Department of Finance presented its budget framework that incorporated public sector wage cuts for 1999 and 2000 even before collective bargaining negotiations with public sector workers had begun.

A coalition of public sector unions, including COSATU member unions National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU), Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) and South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU) opened formal negotiations in late January by demanding a 10 to 15 percent wage increase. The government's demand for public sector wage restraint followed several years of wage increases below the rate of inflation. The unions wanted an increase in the wages of the lowest-paid members, at least, to allow them meet their basic needs, and the wages of the rest of the membership to keep pace with inflation. But Parliament went ahead and approved the Department of Finance budget figures, circumventing the negotiations.

In late May the negotiations went to conciliation. The employer was sent away to get a new mandate. They returned under the leadership of a new Public Service Minister, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, and with a new chief negotiator. The government negotiators then agreed to table a new offer but only if the unions gave up the existing promotion and service-linked wage increases ("rank and leg promotion") for an undefined "new pay system."

Unable to get the government to move at the bargaining table, COSATU initiated a "rolling mass action" program on July 6, which included lunchtime meetings and demonstrations on July 12 to 14, a one-day work stoppage with marches on July 23, and a full-blown strike from July 29, 1999. On July 21 the government urgently convened a meeting of the public sector bargaining council, where they raised their wage offer to 6 percent but officially added new issues to the bargaining table including an end to the "rank and leg promotion" and the development of a new wage policy by December 1999. Meanwhile, the government's media campaign was gaining momentum and public opinion - initially strongly supportive of some public sector workers - was petering out.

The government then unilaterally implemented a salary increase of 6.3 percent. So on August 24 the COSATU public sector unions went ahead with their strike action. One NEHAWU unionist in the Western Cape observed that the Minister had succeeded in a few months what the union movement had failed to achieve in the past: to unite all public servants. Unions demanded a 7.3 percent wage increase across the board (almost a full percent below the inflation rate), with 8.3 percent for teachers. Yet when government negotiators sat down with public sector union representatives at the beginning of September, they simply reiterated that there would be no further wage negotiations. The only thing that they were willing to discuss was a new wage policy. Unsurprisingly, the talks collapsed.

A meeting was scheduled one week later, but adjourned when Fraser-Moleketi announced that the government would not participate in further talks on the wage dispute. By mid-September, representatives from twelve public service unions (representing some 800,000 workers) sought endorsement for strike action from their members, aimed at shutting down the public service in October.

But the call for mass action appears to be losing support, even though the unions still reject the government's unilateral implementation of the wage increase. The teachers would be the ones to carry the strike, yet their history suggests that striking is unlikely, and in any case that they would be unwilling to stay out long. The "no work, no pay" clause in the Labour Relations Act means that if teachers were out for more than three days, they would have lost the increase they would have received over a year (if the strike was successful). In addition, students have just begun writing exams, so public support for further strike action would be low.

Bigger challenges ahead

The dispute has been seen as "all about wages." Since the government had already determined what public sector wage increases would be even before the negotiations began, however, there was little, if any, room for additional increases. Moreover, the government quite successfully framed the demands of workers as "selfish," undermining the government's ability to address the broader needs of the population. In fact, President Thabo Mbeki claimed that acceding to the public sector wage demands would derail the government's reconstruction priorities - in effect accusing workers of frustrating the Reconstruction and Development Programme. The Public Services Minister's message was simple: there is no more money.

Yet salaries were not the only area of dissatisfaction. Restructuring the public sector also remains a critical issue. The unions were surprisingly silent on this, given that the public sector employs about 170,000 fewer workers than it did four years ago and additional retrenchments are clearly part of the government's agenda. Unions had placed transformation high on the agenda during last year's negotiations, but failed to do so this year. As a result, the dispute focused narrowly on wages, ignoring the need to upgrade the skills of lower grade workers, to provide training and skills development, and to have a say in the restructuring of the work environment.

The federation's vision of public sector restructuring is for "[i]ncreased social delivery to the mass of working class and rural communities, the transformation of public sector employment to overcome previous racial and gender inequality and the development of a work ethic which promotes greater service and efficiency." This does "not mean wholesale downsizing, outsourcing and privatisation."

Without any real discussion of restructuring, however, the government is now well positioned to move forward with retrenchments (termed "right-sizing"). The government wants to cut at least 55,000 jobs over the next two years. Even though studies have found that there are fewer surplus public servants than previously suggested, the government has simply ordered a new round of studies to find the over 55,000 that they seek. Thus union leadership did a disservice to the membership by failing to place on the agenda the issue of public service transformation and its relationship with conditions of employment.

End of the alliance?

One commentary on the public sector dispute suggested that the government's refusal to return to the bargaining table "demonstrated that the days of formal unity of purpose between government and labour movement are well and truly over" [SouthScan Sept. 17 1999]. This interpretation is supported by the ANC's unilateral decision to cancel an Alliance meeting in the middle of the public sector dispute. Certainly the government negotiators treated COSATU as an enemy rather than an ally - the COSATU unions were well and truly defeated, with no honourable escape route on offer.

Moreover, this is not simply another instance of unilateral government policy, but a direct challenge to the very foundations of South Africa's collective bargaining structure. Madisha commented that "[t]he unilateral actions of the state set a dangerous precedent for other employers to follow. The effects of this will be felt by every affiliate in this room, and by the millions of workers throughout this country."

COSATU's unwillingness, therefore, to take a strong stand against the government is particularly troubling. At every turn, COSATU has tried to give the government the benefit of the doubt, to no avail. Time and again it seems even counterproductive. At the time of writing, COSATU reported that there had been a major reversal on another major worker rights issue. The Labour Minister announced on November 3, 1999, that all businesses with fewer than ten employees had been exempted from several legislative provisions protecting the rights of their employees. "A war has been declared," COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi responded, "and we shall respond accordingly." With the public sector restructuring negotiations also looming, we shall soon see if COSATU is up to the challenge.

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