Remember dogs running after cars, their nails screeching across the asphalt and all that desperate barking? And remember the old chestnut: what would the dog do if it ever actually caught the car?

Well, then think of Cosatu. There is something about the way Zwelinzima Vavi and his colleagues are behaving in relation to the ANC and government that brings to mind how the dog might have behaved in the first second of having caught the car – before coming to a sticky end, that is.

In the last two weeks alone we have heard and seen Vavi and Cosatu:

  • announce that Jacob Zuma will serve two full terms as president;
  • support strikes in favour of radically lowered interest rates and lambaste SARB Governor Tito Mboweni;
  • denounce public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan for saying under-performing enterprises in her portfolio could be sold;
  • slam Trevor Manuel for his criticisms at the WEF;
  • eviscerate Helen Zille for the all-male nature of her Western Cape cabinet;
  • rage against the Vodacom deal – probably because Mbeki cronies were important beneficiaries;
  • thank fans who have attended Confed Cup games and urged the nation to: “fill those stadiums!”.

Well thank you for governing, Zwelinzima!

How does a trade union federation, especially in a high unemployment environment, get to talk and act like this and, more importantly, be taken seriously? By a combination of skill and luck, that’s how; but it is vanishingly unlikely that the luck will hold. Which is somewhat like the case with the dog who does, eventually, catch the car – its initial confused delight must soon be crushed beneath the wheels.

It has been a long dry season for Cosatu. The federation has spent the last 15 years feeling it was getting the very short end of the stick from the ANC. From January 1995 when Nelson Mandela warned Cosatu that workers could lose their jobs as a result of unnecessary labour unrest until September 2002 when Mbeki accused Cosatu of being part of the “ultra-left” and of “spreading lies” about government policy, Cosatu has repeatedly been slapped down by the ANC.

It some ways Cosatu was born paranoid – and as the 0ld adage goes: just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

From its birth into the State of Emergency in 1985 Cosatu has endlessly admonished itself and its leaders to be vigilant about workers’ interests being overwhelmed by the national or political struggle. The justified fear that dominated the four years of discussion (along with ‘the registration debate’) before the launch of Cosatu in Durban in 1985, was that the trade union movement would become nothing more than a stick with which the United Democratic Front and the African National Congress could beat the Apartheid state. To protect the specific interests of workers –  essentially for better pay, working conditions and representivity ‘on the factory floor’ – Cosatu had to be ever watchful of being dominated by the ‘national movement’ and the struggle for national liberation.

After 1994 Cosatu at first reaped the benefits of having stood by the ANC. The swathe of post 1994 labour legislation – ironically ushered in by then Minister of Labour, Tito Mboweni – including the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act were decisively pro-labour.

But gradually the cold logic of global capital markets and the ANC’s adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution macro-economic policy brought Cosatu into conflict with government’s growth objectives and the labour movement began to cross swords first with Nelson Mandela and then with Thabo Mbeki.

The rest, as they say, is history. Decisively marginalised by Mbeki, Cosatu was nursing its feelings of betrayal and looking for a way back when Jacob Zuma, another “victim” of Mbeki’s machinations, presented himself like a gift from …. that big trade union federation in the sky? So Cosatu joins or helps constitute the “alliance of the disaffected” – thank you Stephen Friedman for a prefect formulation – and the fate of Thabo Mbeki is sealed.

So Cosatu is (like) the dog that caught the car. Vavi’s pompous grandiosity, while irritating, is explicable. Backing Jacob Zuma, the most unlikely candidate for president, is proving, with hindsight, to have been a stroke of desperate genius.

But Vavi and his cohorts would do well to look up and see the rushing mass of rubber and steel to which they have attached themselves. Last week Gwede Mantashe – talking about Vavi’s pronouncements on Zuma’s future role – flicked Vavi aside like he and his organisation were nothing more than an irritating bog-fly.  

For all its vibrancy and cleverness and the energy it brings to its activities, Cosatu is, ultimately, a sectional and sectarian interest group. As such, it can never be the government. It can, and does, lobby and threaten, cajole and flirt with the ANC, but the whole point of such a relationship is that it should never be consummated. The ANC can have a bias, but  it must balance the demands of every sector of the population; it must formulate “the national interest” as distinct from sectional or group interests. In striving to represent all South Africans the ANC struggles to represent the unemployed and marginalised. While there is a separate and serious debate here, it is easy to argue that the interests of this group are importantly divergent from the interests of the employed – especially with regard to legislation that structures the labour market.

In a global environment like the one we are experiencing Cosatu – and organised labour anywhere – are really up against history. The pressure is on economic growth and therefore on jobs; this serves to weaken workers’  bargaining power and everything the union does starts to appear like a desperate last stand.

Cosatu must fight for better pay and job security and the ANC must structure the South African environment to attract as much investment as possible. Platitudes are trotted out about all human interests being the same in the long term, but the different objectives the ANC and Cosatu are compelled to fight for sometimes crash against each other. In this conflict Mantashe must always trump Vavi.

The dog was never meant to catch the car. The wild barking and exuberance could cause the car to swerve, but if the dog ever actually got tooth to bumper the only state that would change, would be the state of the dog.

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