Cosatu wakes to its own demons

No go: Bheki Ntshalintshali (above left) tackled Cosatu’s recalcitrant affiliates. With him at this week’s conference are Tyotyo James and Cyril Ramaphosa. (Paul Botes, M&G)

By: Govan Whittles

Cosatu is obsessed with the ANC succession race but it has the much more urgent task of putting its own house in order. Its membership is stagnating, its affiliates are not paying their affiliation fees or are in disarray and the union federation is paranoid about loyalty to its former general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi.

These issues were brought to the fore by its general secretary, Bheki Ntshalintshali, in his report this week to Cosatu’s first central committee meeting since it called for President Jacob Zuma to step down and for him to be replaced by his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa.

Cosatu is “not completely out of the woods yet”, Ntshalintshali said, and singled out “a lack of co-operation by affiliates” as the federation’s most serious challenge.

“People are using the independence of their constitutions and say, ‘you can’t intervene, we have got [our own] structures’.

“You can also say in some areas there is a lack of leadership. I mean, if a union cannot hold its own congress in terms of its own constitution, there’s no violation worse than that.”

He was referring to the chemical, printing and paper union, Ceppawu, which has failed to submit audited financial statements or hold its congress since 2014.

He said the refusal by affiliates’ to work with national leaders had become evident, with an increasing number of frustrated affiliate members approaching Cosatu about a lack of co-operation from their leaders.

Since the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) from Cosatu, the federation’s private-sector industrial unions have been outnumbered and out-muscled in the federation. The health and education union, Nehawu, and the policing and prisons union, Popcru, are now the most powerful unions in Cosatu.

Ntshalintshali’s report revealed that, of the private-sector unions, only the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) has managed to grow its membership since 2013, with the rest of its affiliates’ membership remaining stagnant or decreasing.

Despite this, the federation’s audited figures showed its membership remained at 1.7-million, clear evidence of the growth of its public-sector unions, Ntshalintshali told the Mail & Guardian.

He attributed the stagnation of the industrial unions’ membership to retrenchments.

“There have been major retrenchments. I think if there were no retrenchments the numbers would have been positive. But it seems, as unions lose members, others are going out to recruit more,” he said.

The report also dealt with troubled affiliates.

The South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu)

Cosatu’s central committee agreed to consider the appeals of expelled Samwu members “positively” and would convene a bosberaad to resolve the crisis in the union.

The union members were expelled for ill-discipline. They unsuccessfully attempted to disrupt a Cosatu central executive committee meeting earlier this month.

Samwu was caught up in a long labour court battle over challenges to its leadership, which finally concluded with those elected at congress being confirmed as the legitimate custodians.

In his organisational report, Ntshalintshali said all parties had accepted the court judgment and considered the matter closed.

The South African Football Players’ Union (Safpu)

Once considered to be one of Numsa’s closest allies, Safpu told the central committee it “remained committed” to Cosatu and would do anything to resolve its problems. Challenges include not paying rent for 17 months and the resignation of its president, Simba Marumo.

Ntshalintshali said Safpu does not have constitutional structures, and new allegations about the mismanagement of union funds and corruption have arisen in their meetings.

Despite its commitment, the union continues to boycott Cosatu’s central executive committee.

The Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (Ceppawu)

Control over union resources and its investment arm have been at the centre of Ceppawu’s internal divisions, Ntshalintshali said.

The union has not paid its affiliation fees for 13 months, and the national office bearers said they have tried everything in their power to achieve a “breakthrough”.

Ntshalintshali said Ceppawu’s investment arm was worth R4-billion, raising the stakes for control of the union. The committee agreed to set up a task team again to attempt to stabilise the union.

The South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu)

The absence of Satawu’s general secretary, Zenzo Mahlangu, was mocked by Ntshalintshali, who said an apology had been sent but he couldn’t understand why the leaders could not walk from nearby Tembisa, where the union has an office.

The home affairs department reportedly deported Mahlangu on May 4, but Satawu’s spokesperson denied this.

Mahlangu is accused by members of the union’s Gauteng structures of acting like a dictator. He presided over the expulsion of leaders such as former president Ephraim Mphahlele and his replacement, June Dube, both of whom went on to form their own unions.

Satawu has also not paid affiliation fees to Cosatu for nine months.

Other unions that are in arrears include the Communications Workers’ Union, which unsuccessfully attempted to convince the meeting to march to Luthuli House on June 15 to reinforce its call for Zuma to step down.

The traitors within

Cosatu has become paranoid about staff members who remain loyal to the federation’s former general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, according to the report.

“There are staff members who are not loyal to the federation but loyal to individuals … This is evident from internal information that ends up with outsiders,” Ntshalintshali said. “This demonstrates that there are still comrades within Cosatu who, if conditions [were right] would leave Cosatu and join a ‘new federation’ but, for job security, they are still here.”

Cosatu does not appear to have any strategy to deal with the threat.

“We are not going to do [a] witch-hunt but expect all Cosatu staff do what they were employed to do and would be treated equally without fear or favour,” Ntshalintshali’s said.

Cosatu expects its bigger affiliates with more money and shop stewards to help to resolve the problems facing distressed unions.

“There is solidarity. Other unions are saying we can’t allow unions who are struggling to do so alone. Those who are better off in terms of resources should give those resources so that staff and shop stewards are better capacitated,” Ntshalintshali said.

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