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The impressive results of Cosatu’s 6th National Congress in South Africa demonstrate the power of collective movements in working towards change on global issues. During the sessions, a robust series of debates took place between Congress and union members that addressed many of the contentious issues released in the 1997 September Commission on the future of the unions. According to the article’s authors, other movements would do well to analyze the experience of Cosatu in their approach towards defending worker interests and addressing post-apartheid economic liberalization. (dkc)

vol 13 no 1

Which way labour?: COSATU's 6th Congress
Eddie Webster and Glenn Adler

Printable Version


Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 1, November 1997
Page 12
"South Africa Now"



Eddie Webster and Glenn Adler both teach Industrial Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand and both are active in trade union-related support work in South Africa. The present article draws on, but significantly develops, arguments first presented in Business Day (by Webster) and The Mail and Guardian (by Adler) during the run-up to Cosatu's recent 6th Congress, a Congress whose subsequent proceedings they also evaluate here.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions' (Cosatu) 6th National congress - held in September - was its most important deliberation since the federation was founded in 1985. The federation undertook a comprehensive, quite critical review of its affairs while debating innovative strategies for achieving its long-standing goals in a new democracy facing the pressures of a global economy.

At the centre of the discussion was the 234-page report from the Commission on the Future of the Unions chaired by Cosatu's second vice-president Connie September. Yet prior to the conference it had been generally ignored; where it was examined in the media, its political recommendations were largely misunderstood and its economic thinking dismissed.

The report's treatment is indicative of a general shift in attitudes towards the labour movement since the 1994 elections. The unions that gathered in Durban in 1985 to launch Cosatu sought unity in the struggle to end apartheid and to advance a socialist transformation. Twelve years later these goals seem to many a distant memory, and the movement that espoused them an anachronism to be consigned to the past, along with P.W. Botha and the Berlin wall. This is a serious mistake. The report and congress deliberations are a landmark in labour's history in South Africa, and the policy decisions will have a wide impact on political and economic developments in this country. Indeed, it provides a model for progressive unions elsewhere in the world confronted by the same problems.

The September Commission

The September Commission report is an unprecedented document. Never before has a movement of black workers in this country survived the economic and political conjuncture in which it was born to be able to chart its fortunes in a new epoch. From the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union in the 1920s to the South African Congress of Trade Unions in the 1950s and 1960s the labour movement's future was always decided for it by a repressive state in collaboration with business. Each generation of trade unionists had to build on the remains of those movements that preceded them.

Today's unions avoided this fate. They emerged from the fight against apartheid with their organizations intact, with growing membership, and having achieved a more progressive political and industrial relations framework under which they may consolidate these advantages.

But economic liberalization poses a new set of problems which defy easy answers. Tariff reduction threatens the integrity of strongly unionized industries; the easing of exchange controls increases the mobility of capital and its power against less-mobile workers; the aggressive logic of competitiveness pushes capital to intensify production, lower labour costs inside firms while deregulating the labour market more generally; government deficit reduction constrains redistributive programs for redressing apartheid inequalities.

In addition to these problems Cosatu faces two further challenges. First, it must develop responses to these threats while in an alliance with a party in government responsible for many economic policy changes consistent with economic liberalization. Recrafting its relationship with the African National Congress (ANC), means defining a new etiquette of opposition and support. Second, it must remake its own internal structures and practices devised over a decade ago for a smaller opposition movement that abstained from involvement in policymaking.

Responding to these challenges is akin to renovating one's motor vehicle while driving at speed in the fast lane of a motorway. It is not a job for the faint-hearted. Yet it is precisely this task that Cosatu undertook when it initiated the September Commission in early 1996 to develop the "vision, goals and strategies to take Cosatu into the next century."

It is noteworthy that the Commission was composed exclusively of black working class intellectuals who had ultimate control over the research and writing. This should put paid to the commonly heard reports that the labour movement is "brain dead" owing to the departure of many (white) leaders to government. The Commission testifies to the labour movement's continuing intellectual vitality and its current office-bearers' willingness to accept the responsibilities of leadership.

The September Commission conducted a careful analysis of Cosatu's current position - warts and all. It makes quite damning statements about organizational weaknesses (particularly in regard to national and regional structures); failure to achieve gender equality; the lack of clarity regarding fundamental policies and vision; and problems in the tripartite alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Redistribution ... and intervention

The Commission takes as its point of departure the extreme contrast of wealth and poverty in South Africa. In the Commission's view, this makes redistribution a necessary condition for economic growth, and requires an interventionist developmental state as a necessary means to achieve this goal. Comparative research cited in the report supports this argument:

* countries which are more equal in terms of wealth distribution tend to have higher growth rates;

* countries which spend a lot on redistribution do better. In contrast, countries whose governments simply spend a lot without a clear redistribution programme tend not to grow;

* higher tax rates (if linked to redistribution) do not adversely effect growth rates.

At the core of the Commission's economic vision is labour as both the major bearer of the public interest in industrial development, and the unified bearer of the majority interest in redistribution and social justice. This vision also involves socializing the investment function through reintroducing prescribed assets - a requirement that enterprises invest in specified developmental areas - and using union investment companies to build "a social sector". The private sector remains the largest sector, but it is to be transformed into a "stakeholder sector" where "no longer only the rights of shareholders prevail, but also the needs of workers, communities and society". The report believes that this can best be done through "strategic engagement". It recommends that Cosatu seriously examine Swedish and German-style co-determination where employees are given institutional rights to participate at shop-floor and board level.

Many key actors in the transition process have put forward their strategic visions. But few have had the courage to identify openly their organizational weaknesses and recommend radical measures to overcome these weaknesses. This constitutes the body of the report; a recommendation that union leaders commit themselves to taking on a central role and responsibility in shaping economic and social development as well as the functioning of the public sector. This latter is seen as "the basic foundation for translating into reality the citizenship rights enshrined in the constitution," through the delivery of services, the stimulation of economic growth, and by advancing significant collective forms of ownership.

The authors call this ambitious model of unionism "social unionism". The germs of this model exist in present policies and practices. But union leaders have been ambivalent in fully embracing them because of the resources required, but also because of the danger of too close an identification with management.

Social unionism

Social unionism requires a commitment to economic growth and wealth creation as well as equitable redistribution. It requires the democratization of the workplace, participation in tripartite bodies such as the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), and a skilled staff inside the organization. In fact, organizational renewal is at the core of the report. Unions will increasingly need to pay attention to their own human resource development, particularly in the face of increased turnover and changed expectations amongst staff.

With social unionism, in essence, instead of merely reacting to events, unions become proactive, take the initiative, and seek to set the agenda. This, the report makes clear, will require a major restructuring of the federation from one in which affiliates maintain a high degree of autonomy and where decision-making power is decentralized. The report recommends making Cosatu head office the "engine room" of the federation by increasing the number of full-time office bearers from two to six and by requiring them to meet more regularly. To offset the increased power given to full-time officials the report recommends the creation of a new Central Committee, composed of 300-500 delegates from the affiliates, to meet annually as a mini-congress empowered to make policy decisions. It also recommends bolstering the powers and resources of Cosatu regional and local structures, strengthening Cosatu's own departments, and encouraging the consolidation of unions into fewer bigger and stronger affiliates. Taken together these changes mean an organization capable - for the first time - of giving force to Cosatu's stated policies.

A crucial part of the report is a recommendation that Cosatu establish greater autonomy within the tripartite alliance. The report's slogan, "flexible independence", means that Cosatu supports the ANC when it adopts progressive policies, seeks to influence ANC policies wherever possible, and opposes the ANC when it adopts "anti-worker" positions. It also recommends a broad alliance with five key sectors of civil society - the trade union movement, the NGO movement, the community constituency within NEDLAC, religious organizations and progressive intellectuals.

The Congress

At the congress the September Commission proposals were debated alongside resolutions from the affiliates and recommendations in the secretariat's report's - an unwieldy process in which delegates were often flipping between three separate and lengthy documents. Yet this produced less confusion than was expected, in part because the Commission's report was presented at affiliates congresses and special policy conferences held in the run-up to the Cosatu's congress; indeed many of its proposals were already incorporated into the affiliates' own positions.

The congress endorsed the report's view that the federation lacked capacity to drive its policies and accepted the proposals to strengthen the organization's centre - including the recommendation to increase the number of full-time office bearers. Concern was expressed about a possible loss of worker control through these centralizing reforms, a question not fully answered by the agreement to establish a Central Committee and to strengthen Cosatu local office bearers and structures.

The most contentious issues of all - around social and economic policy as well as a clear programme on union investment companies - were generally deferred to a meeting of the new Central Committee structure to be held within the next six months. Nonetheless there were significant decisions in this area. The congress supported the September Commission's view to strengthen the role of the state in the productive sector of the economy and its capacity to provide basic services and infrastructure. The congress rejected co-determination, but accepted the need for strategic engagement with capital at all levels and came out with a strong defense of NEDLAC.

The congress re-endorsed the tripartite alliance; indeed for the first time at a Cosatu congress the ANC and SACP were accorded speaking rights from the floor. But congress rejected a proposal from the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) - which paralleled the September report's recommendation - that Cosatu deploy some of its national office bearers (NOBs) to the ANC's National Working Committee and National Executive Committee. NUMSA proposed that they serve as Cosatu representatives accountable to the federation rather than the ANC itself. Delegates were concerned that the NOBs would be overly stretched as a result of these duties, and stopped short of accepting this more ambitious inside' approach to contesting the alliance.

Rejecting GEAR

They accepted the proposal for an alliance summit to develop a clear transformation programme, and rejected the government's neoliberal Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic framework, but did not demand that the ANC drop the policy. It was argued that the policy was not cast in stone and could be successfully contested in many ways short of a direct confrontation with the ANC. The congress also adopted the surprising resolution to build the SACP backed up by the commitment of Cosatu resources to help finance the party and to share some educational programmes. This could be read in two - potentially non-contradictory - ways: as bolstering the left in an ANC in which the interests of business and the state bureaucracy are increasingly accommodated, or as developing the kernel of a genuine labour party.

Indeed, severe criticism of the alliance was made in all congress documents, from the floor, and - in Mandela's presence - by Cosatu President John Gomomo. But, while solving one problem in the alliance - by re-endorsing it - the congress postponed the key problem of channelling this discontent into a concrete programme of action to secure its policies inside the alliance. For example, while congress agreed to support the ANC in the 1999 general elections, the precise nature of their support "still has to be worked out." A key issue to be resolved is whether Cosatu seconds leadership to parliament, as it did in 1994, how many are to be sent, and what structures of accountability to Cosatu - if any - will be developed.

The September Commission's - and the Cosatu secretariat's - most serious defeat was a rejection of their proposals to introduce a quota system for advancing women into leadership positions in the federation. The position was strongly endorsed by the National Education Health and Allied Workers' Union and the Chemical Workers Industrial Union. Opposition to the resolution was led by women delegates - many of whom spoke for the first and only time in the congress on this issue - who rejected the proposal as tokenism. Their positions were met with thunderous applause by the majority of male delegates, who had little to offer other than stale commitments to the same education and training programmes for women which have previously had little impact.

It was clear that a vote on the issue would have meant a repudiation of key affiliates, the September Report and the secretariat. A compromise was reached - brokered by the National Union of Mineworkers - that committed the federation to setting and monitoring the implementation of "measurable targets."

Impressive debates

Many of the September Commission proposals were adopted by the congress, but the value of the exercise cannot be judged by a crude count of recommendations accepted or rejected. What is impressive is that the September Commission and the congress debates happened at all. Cynical observers - even many inside Cosatu - claimed beforehand that the congress would be stage-managed and that deals had been brokered around the most contentious issues. This clearly didn't happen. Debates were robust - the congress went well over time - with many issues resolved only after complicated compromises between affiliates, or deferred when agreement failed. Other critical issues - including most of the socio-economic policy proposals - could not be entertained due to the crowded agenda.

The September Commission report was not meant as a blueprint, but as a way to open discussion on crucial issues; it was a starting point for debate, rather than a fully rounded conclusion. In many areas the congress clarified positions, but it will be up to subsequent meetings to advance the discussion further and to develop coherent programmes.

This opening is extremely important in a context of global pessimism on the left. Between a simple acceptance or rejection of globalization Cosatu has begun to map out ways to use its organizational strength, mobilizational capacity, and access to formal institutions to defend worker interests and to open spaces for a socialist programme.

In his celebrated book, Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914 - 1991 , Eric Hobsbawm concludes:

The Short Twentieth Century, ended in problems, for which nobody had, or even claimed to have solutions. As the citizens of the fin de siecle tapped their way through the global fog that surrounded them, into the third millennium, all they knew for certain was that an era of history had ended. They knew very little else.

In these circumstances it would be churlish to expect Cosatu to come up with final solutions to problems that have evaded Nobel Prize winning economists. But they have begun the task. Labour and social movements elsewhere in the world would do well to analyze this experience and to find ways of collaborating with it. It will be through such joint endeavors that labour worldwide may begin to develop common responses to global problems.

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