Whither the Congress of South African Trade Unions?

Against the Current, No. 127, March/April 2007

Ebrahim Harvey

SINCE 1994 THE Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the labor ally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the largest and most influential trade union federation in South Africa, has faced such adverse and troubling times that many commentators and analysts have seriously questioned the purpose and integrity of such an alliance. This political issue has been flogged in the public domain like probably few others.

There can be little or no doubt that political alliances, especially between a ruling party and a supportive trade union federation, has to be mutually beneficial (Harvey 2000). In such an alliance one would reasonably and objectively expect that a union federation — especially one as numerically and politically powerful as COSATU — should not just keep the party in power by its votes, but also use the alliance to strengthen itself to achieve stated goals, particularly the creation of a socialist society (COSATU, 2000; 2006). COSATU has made it abundantly clear that its primary goal is socialism.

Fundamental policy agreements are imperative in ruling alliances — often less so for a ruling party which is wedded to neoliberalism, but especially in the interests of radical allies. But there are such fundamental policy and strategic differences between the ANC and COSATU that the necessity and wisdom of this alliance, even tactically, has been seriously questioned many times over the past decade. This has especially been so since the ANC-led government adopted the conservative macroeconomic policy framework, the “growth, employment and redistribution” (GEAR) strategy in 1996.

There are numerous and very explicit statements by the ANC that it is not, has never been and will never be a socialist party, and by that very fact does not have socialism as its goal. To the contrary its most senior leadership, led by President Thabo Mbeki, have driven the neoliberal government program and pushed aside any opposition in the process. They have also become the primary vehicle for the creation of a black capitalist class in South Africa.

Under the misleading rubric of “black economic empowerment” (BEE) the ANC-led government has even passed legislation to facilitate black capitalist advancement. Public discourse since 1994 has amply shown that BEE has been little more than the rapid enrichment of a tiny black elite (Harvey 2000; Bond 2002). It is of importance here to note that over the same period, and in inverse proportion to this rapid enrichment of a tiny black elite and a growing black middle class, black mass poverty and unemployment grew and still grows.

Will COSATU Die Without the ANC?

Why then does this alliance continue despite the fact that it has been against the interests of COSATU, in which they have largely been used as electoral canon fodder by the ANC? There are several reasons. The restraining role of the South African Communist Party (SACP) — the decades-long ally of the ANC — is certainly a decisive factor. The SACP is long considered the most significant political, ideological and programmatic influence upon COSATU.

It is also significant that the SACP was one of the most loyal supporters of the monstrous Stalinist bureaucracy in the former Soviet Union, including the brutal suppression of the mass uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and the reforms in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The SACP also spearheaded the expulsion of Marxists from the ANC and the former South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) in the late 1970s.

But besides not seeing any serious prospect for building a powerful and credible leftist alternative if they left the alliance, COSATU also seem to believe that they would suffer even further marginalisation if they did. But there is no reason to believe that this is inevitable. What does, rather, appear inevitable is their further evisceration within the alliance, as has been the trend since 1994.

That is the inherent risk of their continued presence in the alliance: if and when in a few years time they do decide to leave the alliance: if they could have lost much more of their strength and be in a less favourable position to chart a new and more independent and radical political way forward, alongside or having merged with social movements, to form an electoral coalition or a party, for example.

Under ANC urgings or even possible threats, COSATU seems to suggest that it would be in the “political wilderness” if it departed from the alliance with the ANC and that the gains it has made could be undone. But these gains are exaggerated, aside from some progressive aspects of labor law.

Most social/public policies governing basic services the poor black majority heavily and daily rely upon, such as water, electricity and housing, have a distinctly neoliberal character, beyond vastly inadequate “lifeline” supplies. The barest minimalist lifelines and terribly poor levels of basic services — and these only to those who have the infrastructure, which in the case of water seven million people still don’t have — are subsequently combined with aggressive cost recovery, cutoffs and the unilateral imposition of prepaid water and electricity meters in the poorest black households.

This alone rips apart the whole notion of a “developmental state” and the “national democratic revolution” — the supposed first stage of the schematic and moribund Stalinist two stage theory of revolution — because even on its own terms it is utterly false and ridiculous. Why? Twelve years since 1994 and after well over three hundred years of white racism, domination and deprivation and in the richest and most powerful country in Africa, millions of black people are still without water, electricity and housing, all in the name of balancing neoliberal budgets amidst fiscal constraints.

But the most discouraging result of this alliance after 12 years of ANC rule is that  rather than enjoying new, meaningful and reliable jobs, substantially raising wages from their low apartheid-era levels and the standards of living of its members and the wider working class, COSATU has experienced huge job and membership losses and an actual lowering of real wages and standards of living of workers. This is thanks to a whole range of neoliberal economic and social/public policies introduced by the ANC since 1994. Many credible research reports note the substantial growth in black unemployment and poverty since 1995.

But a regressive and negative outcome is not necessarily inevitable were COSATU to quit the alliance with the ANC. This would depend on a whole range of contending factors and forces, the interplay and results of which we cannot in advance foresee. Look at what happened in Zimbabwe when the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions broke its alliance with the ruling party and built an opposition to it. I do not accept that there are any insuperable factors or forces at play which will inherently prevent COSATU from leading the formation of a Brazilian-type workers’ party in South Africa. The strategic and political purpose of such doomsday predictions — primarily spread by the ANC — is to keep COSATU in the alliance in order to better control and contain it and thereby maintain ANC state power.

The Jacob Zuma Debacle

The protracted and bitter debacle around COSATU’s support for former deputy president, Jacob Zuma, in both the corruption and later rape charges [Zuma’s lengthy trial on the latter recently ended in acquittal — ed.], must be seen within the broader context of the alliance between the ANC, COSATU and the SACP. Desperately tired and frustrated from their ineffective, dominated, futile and in fact counterproductive presence in the ANC alliance, COSATU’s frenzied support for Zuma was a yearning for a popular figure whom they could hopefully persuade towards more leftist conclusions upon winning the presidency of both the ANC and the country, in return for their support.

COSATU’s support for Zuma is based on the misleading and mistaken notion that as president of the ANC and the country he would be sympathetic to or supportive of their goals. There is no credible political, ideological or programmatic basis for such expectations. While he was deputy president of South Africa there exist no evidence to show Zuma’s support on any of the issues that rancorously divided COSATU and the ANC: neoliberal economic and social policies, Zimbabwe, HIV/Aids and many other examples.

As this writer has stated elsewhere (Mail & Guardian, 29 September 2006) COSATU’s support for Zuma is much more a telling indication of the desperate state of the left, both inside and outside the ANC, than it is about the credentials of Zuma himself. Besides, it was Zuma, as head of government affairs in parliament and head of the ANC’s deployment committee, who reigned in dissenting voices.

The key question is why COSATU has taken this dangerous path, especially when it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that Zuma would make any distinctly radical turn later. I argue that so weak, isolated and fragmented is the left outside the ANC alliance that COSATU sees no serious prospect of uniting with these small formations, scattered across the country, in a major challenge against ANC-led neoliberal hegemony. Furthermore, seeing the SACP as “the vanguard party of the working class,” COSATU will not entertain the idea of an independent mass workers’ party or other leftist alternative and therefore will not be a part of any process to build such a party or a campaign against the ANC-led government.

Distance from Social Movements

It is also fairly evident that since social movements are strongly critical of COSATU’s alliance with the ANC and are committed to building a political alternative, in whatever form, COSATU has kept its distance from them, even when its 2003 congress adopted a resolution of working with social movements on issues of common concern. A telling indication of its belligerent attitude towards certain social movements is reflected in the resolution, which states that COSATU will only work with those which are not hostile to COSATU and its allies (COSATU 2003).

Progressive as this resolution was — since they for long avoided dealing directly with the matter — it was deliberately crafted in such a way as to exclude particular social movements, which are interestingly the most militant ones. Confirming this analysis, COSATU has not made any serious and sustained effort to work with the likes of the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), which is probably the most vocal and militant opponent of the ANC and COSATU’s alliance with it. To the contrary, it has failed or refused to respond to many attempts by the APF to work with them.

However, a probably bigger reason for COSATU’s distance from social movements is the urgings, if not instructions, they get from the leadership of the ANC and the country. Why? Because social movements represent a growing voice in opposition to the ANC’s neoliberal policies, they could spell trouble for the party if they were to unite with COSATU in a program of action against such policies. In a climate of growing social crises, restlessness and impatience among the black masses, nobody can foresee how such a trajectory might unfold, but increasing militancy is probably inevitable.

The key question is: Will such militacy, when it inevitably resumes, remain unorganized and unguided — as appears largely the case with the great many township revolts over the past two to three years — or will an organization emerge to lead and guide these struggles?

Only a bureaucratic and reactionary obstructionism by conservative forces inside the ANC alliance — led by Mbelei and his neoliberal clique in the presidency — can prevent the alliance or unification of COSATU and social movements. Quite clearly, if this came to fruition it would pose the biggest threat to ANC rule yet. Mbeki is not too concerned with the challenges from the SACP itself, which is a relatively small party, with a reported but disputable membership of 40,000. He is far more concerned with the direction of and decisions taken by COSATU’s 1.8 million members, though he often acts indifferently.

The SACP’s significance for conservatives in the ANC is largely because of its very close relations with COSATU, expressed too by the overlapping executive membership of the two organisations. It is this executive overlap which tends to solidify reaction against revolutionary currents within social movements, struggling to “make another world possible.”

Alliances are Not Permanent

Alliances are not born into perpetuity. My argument is that although one could argue that even before 1994 the alliance between COSATU and the ANC had exhausted itself by the time some major policy reversals occurred — such as when the ANC abandoned its commitment to nationalization, meant to ensure better and stronger redistribution in a post-apartheid state — this became unquestionably clear after the ANC adopted GEAR in 1996 and thereafter an array of complementary neoliberal socio-public policies in the crucial area of basic municipal services.

The ongoing and often deepening angst and animosity between COSATU and the ANC since 1996 has therefore abundantly made it clear that this alliance had not just exhausted its usefulness but had become an albatross around the unions’ necks. There has probably been no other alliance between a ruling party and a trade union federation elsewhere in which the latter has been so blatantly disadvantaged by policies adopted by the former.

But there are other serious considerations. Significant divisions both within and between affiliates of COSATU over its alliance with the ANC. This poses serious dangers because these divisions — including over the Zuma issue and between its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, and its president, Willie Madisha — have already further weakened COSATU to such a serious extent last year that it indeed threatened to tear it apart. The unresolved Vavi-Madisha conflict is also related to differences within COSATU between those who supported Zuma and those who did not or were doubtful about his presidential prospects, much as they did think that the media had not treated him fairly.

These internal conflicts came fast on the heels of the massive job losses suffered since GEAR was adopted. These were not just job losses for affected workers, but also decimated union membership. How do you sustain an alliance in which the ruling party’s policies have continuously attacked and weakened its labor ally? And how can the labor ally of a neoliberal party use the state it controls to build socialism? Access to state power has been the key instrument the ANC has used and fashioned to forge the neoliberal post-apartheid state and to suppress the fight against its neoliberal policies.

An Empty “Great Debate”

Compared to Mbeki, Jacob Zuma’s “common touch” and greater approachability, charisma  and openness, is certainly seductive. Though positive these are more personal-subjective features, which are bereft of the clear and radical policy positions alternative leadership requires. Besides, Zuma has on several occasions made it emphatically clear that he has no fundamental policy differences with the ANC and Mbeki. While the wave of support of COSATU and the SACP for him has markedly subsided recently in the face of much criticisms there are indications that they are quietly mobilizing support for him in the upcoming ANC conference.

However, any belief that Zuma’s presidency of the ANC and the country would usher in a more pro-working class agenda fails to realise that the ANC itself has been marginalised by the cabinet of President Mbeki and his coterie of economic advisers inside and outside South Africa. In fact COSATU has often complained that the ANC presidency, the minister of finance and the cabinet in particular have sidelined them on crucial macroeconomic policy formulation. The irrefutable fact is that the ANC has moved closer to both white and black capital and further away from and effectively against the interests of the black working class, it historical support base.

That is why the “great presidential succession debate” within the ANC alliance is also bereft of contending and conflicting policy positions between the “pro-Mbeki” and “pro-Zuma” factions. Instead much smoke and mirrors have surrounded this debate. To date this debate has not publicly expressed any fundamental policy differences in the run-up to the presidential elections at the end of 2007.

Neither has the equally mythical “battle for the soul of the ANC” presented any serious policy or strategic differences between those supposedly waging this battle, which is little more than a mirage. The fact is that already in 1996 the “soul of the ANC” was fundamentally and apparently irretrievably compromised by GEAR and much neoliberal legislation and policies introduced thereafter. (Harvey 2006)  It is also a fact that the ANC has essentially maintained the fundamental character of the macroeconomic policies adopted in 1996. Even George Soros has unequivocally stated that post-apartheid South Africa is in the hands of world capital.

Just when we thought we had seen enough of the conflict between these allies a leading figure of the ANC and deputy finance minister, Jabu Moleketi, has scathingly attacked COSATU at an ANC meeting for wanting “to turn the ANC into a socialist organization.” According to press reports this attack prompted COSATU to stage a walkout which some senior ANC officials desperately intervened to prevent. Thereafter, following reports about the conflict in the media, COSATU hit back and denied these claims.

This interminable conflict will probably reach breaking point sooner or later, but it is also possible that the alliance will wobble along for years to come, especially in the absence of a substantial and attractive radical alternative outside the alliance, to which COSATU could gravitate and merge with. On the other hand, COSATU is itself best placed to become this pole of attraction if it left the alliance with the ANC, and towards which social movements will likely gravitate.

It is also an undeniable fact that COSATU has itself acted against many unionists who were strongly critical of the ANC and who called for an end to the federation’s alliance with it. Many good and dedicated unionists were in one way or another driven out of COSATU over the past decade. The federation has also acted against social movements who are fighting for social justice, in one instance by evicting the Anti-Privatisation Forum from their building a few years ago, an act many believed was instigated by the ANC.
But while acting against social movements, COSATU leaders tolerate the blatantly counter-revolutionary and neoliberal policies and actions of the ruling party, which has seriously weakened the federation since 1996. Such searing irony cannot escape us.

COSATU and the Movements

So where is COSATU heading for in the convoluted and complex South African situation? While there are various possible future scenarios, the rupture in COSATU’s alliance with the ANC, and unity in action between itself and social movements, appears to offer the best hope of developing a counter-movement to ANC hegemony. Without such unity it is very unlikely that the ANC will be dislodged from power for a long time to come.

The point is that COSATU — though in an alliance with an increasingly pro-capitalist ruling party and itself riddled with clear contradictions, ambiguity and poor leadership — remains central to any alternative leftist project in South Africa. Put another way, I see little hope of the social movements on their own becoming a major and decisive force in South African politics. The best they can presently offer — other than the small-scale daily struggles they wage for a better life under very adverse circumstances — is their great potential for massive growth and the social(ist) transformation of this society. A “critical mass” they still have to achieve.

However, key to any leftist project is uniting struggles at the point of production — where the unions are based — with those in the spheres of reproductive consumption, in the townships, where social movements are based. Unless such an organically unifying process unfolds social movement struggles — especially in a climate of a serious lack of funds and resources — will probably peter out over the next few years. In fact it is already clear that there has been a noticeable decline in their struggles recently.

COSATU will also need to take up the struggles against the commercialization and commodification of basic municipal services, which has led to an increase in black poverty and hardships under which its members have to live when they return home from work daily. Unless these linkages can be made the struggles of both COSATU and social movements will suffer severe limitations.

However, such moves are not just important to muster greater unity for the decommodification of basic public services, such as adequate access to water and electricity, but also to build an electoral coalition to challenge the ANC. We are admittedly far from such a prospect but it is the only feasible one for the next five to ten years. This is so because there is no other leftist organisation in South Africa that has the policies, strength and authority to challenge the ANC presently.

All other more radical black-led parties, such as the Pan Africanist Congress and the Azanian People’s Organization, have been in serious decline since 1994. It is therefore quite clear that unless COSATU leaves the ANC alliance and joins up with social movements — its most natural class allies — the ANC may stay in power for another ten to twenty years or longer. Of this there must be little or no doubt.

Electoral Alternative Needed

Social movements need to achieve greater organizational cohesion and stability and a clearer policy and programmatic framework if they are to enhance their impact on South African politics. They also will need to realize — the sooner the better — that with due regard to the current balance and relationship of forces in South Africa and the world context, we are very far from any revolutionary or insurrectionary prospect. Therefore, the dominant reality of our constitutional and electoral democracy, bourgeois as it is or may be, is one they need to reckon with. For this purpose participation in elections, at both national and local level, is imperative.

Any sectarian and narrow anti-electoral, anti-parliamentary, anti-statist and autonomist currents among social movements will fade with time and fail to make any meaningful impact in this country. The fact that electoral participation has inherent dangers of being absorbed into potentially or structurally disempowering and debilitating system of institutional and legalistic politics does not make abstention correct. It appears in fact that the “Brazilian route” — in which a workers’ party came to power through elections — is the only option for the South African left for the foreseeable future.

There is no prospect whatsoever for social movements to take the reins of power — even if just in part — by remaining outside the electoral and parliamentary systems, riddled with problems and dangers as they are. Neither can it be concluded that because the trade union movement has suffered serious decline over the past two to three decades, social movements can dispense with their support or that they are today less important.

Labor will remain indispensably crucial, even for developing a countermovement to decommodify reproductive consumption, affecting municipal basic services. The reason for this is that without confronting the power of corporate capital in the wider economy — to which the commercialization and commodification of municipal services is linked in the final analysis — such a movement will not achieve much over the longer term. This critically important perspective has eluded many of the younger social movement activists.

However, with the ANC so embedded in the South African popular political imagination, the most powerful trade union federation tied to it and in the absence of a strong socialist organization outside the ANC alliance, even participation in elections cannot guarantee rapid progress and great victories. In fact it is necessary that electoral participation have a longer-term perspective in mind.

This course of action will not be easy, especially since bourgeois electoral participation has huge funding and resource requirements if a meaningful impact has to be made. Social movements — drawn almost exclusively from poor black working-class communities — will probably never be able to raise enough funds for electoral participation on a national scale. But the presence of unions within an electoral alliance with social movements could make raising funds much more possible.

At the moment, however, this is still just a distant dream in South Africa. The left generally is paying a heavy price today for the collective organizational, political, strategic and tactical mistakes and loss of opportunities previous generations of socialists and revolutionaries have bequeathed us.

In conclusion, there is a long slog ahead for the left, both inside and outside the ANC alliance. But I am confident that the political landscape could be fundamentally changed overnight if COSATU departed from the alliance and blazed an independent path forward, in unison with social movements and other forces, to form a leftist mass alternative to challenge a neoliberal ANC that is today unrecognizable from its more social democratic past. If it fails to take this step and remains in an alliance with the ANC, the left outside it is in for a much harder and longer slog.


Bond, P (2002), Elite Transitions: From Apartheid to Neo-liberalism in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg: University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press.

COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) (2000), ‘Accelerating Transformation: COSATU’s engagement with policy and legislative processes during South Africa’s First Term of Democratic Governance.” Parliamentary Office: Cape Town.

COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) (2003), ‘Resolutions of the Cosatu 8th National Congress.’

COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) (2006), ‘Consolidating working class power — for intensification of the jobs and poverty campaign’, Book 1, Secretarial Report.

Harvey, E (1999), ‘It’s time for the SACP to step out of the ANC’s shadow’, Mail & Guardian, October 22.

Harvey, E (2000), ‘The myth of a black capitalist class’, Mail & Guardian, 22 July.

Harvey, E (2006a), ‘Jacob Zuma: Working class hero?’, Mail & Guardian, 29 September.

Harvey, E (2006b), ‘Real battle for the soul of the ANC is long since over’, Cape Times, 29 December.

ATC 127, March-April 2007