In South Africa, trade union federation Cosatu is more than just a labour federation. It is a partner of the ruling party and accounts for the majority of South Africa's working class.
Its importance is best exemplified by the fact that the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), marched to its offices – as opposed to government offices – when it wanted to influence government policy change.
So, when Cosatu affiliates meet next week to assess the state of their organisation over the past three years, one hopes that they will do more than just look inward, that they will also take stock of what is happening around South Africa.
This is particularly necessary because the restlessness, inertia and sense of unease that have enveloped South Africa stem from a revolt-like situation led by grassroots workers who are protesting against low salaries, poor living conditions and general inequality in our society.
Thus it is to the Cosatu conference that we will be turning in the hope that the federation and its leaders will provide answers as the country faces a workers' revolution not led by the leading trade union or the South African Communist Party (SACP). It is uncharted territory for everyone when miners, who are not under anyone's auspices, sacrifice a month's salary and go hungry in an effort to force mining companies to take them seriously.
The National Union of Mine-workers (NUM) has always been the miners' link to the broader political and social networks in the communities in which they work and live. But with the workers having chased away the union's leadership, the miners are now well and truly on their own. There is no one in the political elite who has access to the workers to "conscientise" them.
The SACP, ostensibly the workers' vanguard, has not chosen a side. It has been content to mock them for their association with a sangoma who allegedly assured them that they would be immune to police bullets if the correct muti was taken. The analysis of SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande and his deputy, Solly Mapaila, has invariably referred to the intelezi (medicine) sprinkled on the protesters by a sangoma – a narrative that could be interpreted to say that the workers behaved recklessly by charging at the police in the belief they would not be killed.
It is a tale shorn of sympathy that seeks to expose the ignorance of the workers, rather than their strength, and it is coming from the SACP, which should be leading the workers' revolution.
The DA has voiced concern about the violence and the impasse. The ANC has blamed the mine owners and supported the idea of a commission of inquiry into events, but it has failed to take charge of the situation. Some civil society formations have publicly associated themselves with the workers' cause but have been unable to root themselves in the community of workers on the ground. The one person who has struck a chord with the workers is expelled former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, whose agenda seems to be to sow more discord and realise a "mining revolution" and "economic freedom in our lifetime".
Malema, operating from his plush home in Sandton, apparently also believes he is on the right side of the ANC faction that wants President Jacob Zuma to go. He therefore believes that by leading an insurrection Zuma's leadership will be discredited and support will be given to the agenda of those who want Kgalema Motlanthe to take over.
Malema has successfully exploited the workers' mistrust of the NUM, leading to a bizarre scenario in which he is seen addressing thousands of mineworkers while the NUM leadership speaks to the media from the comfort of their offices.
So, what do we expect the leadership of the NUM and the government to be doing at this moment? Is it perhaps meeting the representatives of the workers, talking sense to them about what this stalemate might result in, maybe camping in their area and assessing what their needs are, generally seeking to purvey the message that they are not alone in their struggle? One might hope for that, but alas…
And we might actually think that the NUM leadership would ponder Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi's caution about the social distance between it and those it leads. Maybe it could take heed of what one of its own, Silumko Nongwandu, once said: "The fundamental question that arises, which our national congress must answer, is what dangers are there that the trade union movement is turned into a conveyor belt for an 'elitist interest' and that, unknowingly, it is reduced over time into a ladder to amass wealth, stature and access to positions of power and privilege in the state, the private sector and the trade union movement itself."
You might imagine that the NUM would be working 24 hours a day to change this perception by actually taking up the workers' demands and allowing for fresh elections where its local leaders have been questioned. But our expectations are very idealistic.
In reality, many of the worker leaders preparing for the conference are not losing sleep over Marikana. They are mainly worried about how to bring Vavi down to earth and stop his embarrassment of the government by criticising everything and everyone: how to shut him down before Mangaung.
They are worried about how to tame Cosatu into a friendlier voice (like the SACP) and how it will ensure that, by the time the delegates depart from Gallagher Estate, they fully understand that their role in society is to fight poverty, inequality and unemployment – as long as the target of their anger is not the ANC government.
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