Vuyo Mvoko | Cosatu’s missed opportunities
And so the big moment came, to think big and make history.
And the 32-year-old Cosatu rose to the challenge, electing its first woman president, Zingiswa Losi.
Not that Losi’s predecessor, Sdumo Dlamini, gave up easily.
Despite all the rancour and grievances against him over the past year especially, it was only when he realised that he was coasting to inevitable defeat, that he eventually decided against standing for re-election.
Long after his comrades, and indeed many South Africans, had developed a welldeserved and intense antipathy for his hero, Jacob Zuma, Dlamini still remained one of the former president’s sycophantic loyalists.
With its claim to being the largest of the country’s three main trade union federations now seriously in jeopardy – due in no small measure to the November 2014 expulsion of its biggest affiliate, Numsa – the Cosatu delegates who gathered in Midrand, Johannesburg, from Monday till yesterday had an opportunity to confront other demons they created for themselves. They made equally far-reaching decisions about their future, as they did with Losi’s election.
Having dismally failed, during some of its best years, to come even close to its four million target of the last decade or so, the obvious question was where, then, would it get the membership numbers it now needs to stay at the top of the pile?
For one of the affiliates, Nehawu, it was no rocket science – bring back Numsa and you will immediately have more than 300,000 more Cosatu members.
Then the furious squabbling began, with some genuinely baffling, vague suggestions and explanations, especially from the newly elected leadership.
“We need to come up with a clear plan on how we are going to go back and recruit the unorganised workers,” Losi said.
Newly elected Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali insisted, “We never wanted them to leave. We pushed Numsa out of the issue of founding principles.
“Uniting is not an event … so we hope by the time we go to our next congress we will be talking a different story.”
It’s common knowledge, of course, that Ntshalintshali was Cosatu’s deputy secretary when then federation fired its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, who is now the general secretary of the newly-formed rival federation, the SA Federation of Trade Unions.
It’s also a fact that Losi was a Numsa member when the affiliate was about to be expelled.
The union suspended her as one of its shop stewards, but didn’t leave it there.
When she went on to join Popcru, Numsa asked the public protector to investigate what it suspected was an irregular appointment to the position of deputy director-general of SAPS in what Numsa believed were rather “dubious” circumstances.
The fact is that Numsa, Vavi and others were hounded out.
They were sacrificed at the altar of expedience, for no reasons other than their stance against Zuma.
With all that has changed since – including the historic barring last year of the ANC president from addressing the Workers Day rally in Bloemfontein and Cosatu backing Cyril Ramaphosa ahead of the ANC’s December elective conference – bringing back Numsa would have been the single biggest sign of a genuine commitment to uniting workers.
As the Cosatu conference progressed, it soon became apparent that bringing back the prodigal son was the last thing in the delegates’ and leadership’s mind.
And with that, one big opportunity for change was lost.
The conference moved on, and among other big ones up for discussion was the issue of whether to back the ANC, or the SACP, in the upcoming general election.
And the final decision: let’s back the ANC once again, in the hope that it will treat us better this time.
After next year’s poll, wait till the balance of power shifts, again, and the centre stops holding.
Then listen to the cries of the jilted lovers Cosatu and the SACP, telling all that they are ready to file divorce papers because they are tired of being used for election purposes.
They will have lost whatever little influence they will have regained in the past year and no-one will be taking their calls.
Truth be told, Cosatu and the SACP never really had it good in post-apartheid SA.
During Mandela and Mbeki’s reigns they had it tough, often rough – bitterly complaining all the time about working class interests being run rough shod over as capitalists and the bourgeoisie had the upper hand and the ear of the ruling elite.
In fact, the most dramatic improvements to the tripartite alliance relationship actually came under Zuma – only to be followed, of course, by equally dramatic forms of betrayals and massive fallouts.
But the reason the cat and mouse game never ends is because it is never based on principled, binding and well thought-through objectives and programmes.
Deployments to cabinet and other senior positions, often for the convenience and to the sole benefit of leading commies and unionists, is all it takes to enter into some loose arrangements, until the next set of disappointments.
With Losi’s election the Cosatu conference no doubt took a big step forward, but with so many missed opportunities took it several steps back.
But it’s not late for Losi and co to take the once mighty federation to what the sons of this province – among them Elijah Barayi, John Gomomo and Mbuyi Ngwendas – dreamt it would be.
But I dare say Cosatu, as we came to know it, is dead.