You hear it bruted about that Cosatu provided the organisational structure and person-power to wrestle the ANC from Thabo Mbeki and his Xhosa-Nostra. You also might be told that the same strengths of Cosatu has won the ANC successive national elections.

However, if you listen closely and to another set of people, you will hear that it was, in fact, the ANCYL that provided the infrastructure and capacity to undertake the Polokwane Putsch and that the architect of the 2009 general election victory was Fikile Mbalula, the ANCYL president prior to Julius Malema and clearly the candidate of the Youth League for higher office come 2012 (in the realm of the ANC) and 2014 (in the realm itself).

I think what happened at Polokwane required slightly different organisational capacities from those required in a national election, but common to both is: large amounts of money, a strategic centre that can plan and execute a national campaign that comfortably moves between the big picture and local, door-to-door type work and, finally,  a large group of deployable activists or cadres.

Cosatu cannot dream of competing with the ANC’s cash reserves. We have all heard that this might be the richest political party in the world. Chancellor House aside, I would be hugely surprised if the ANC had not put itself first in the economy wide asset transfer that is taking place in the name of transformation.

That much money automatically provides for a strategic centre and local and provincial machinery – and, to some degree, deployable party workers (paid rather than volunteers). You can hire the Saatchi and Saatchi to be a proxy for the strategic centre, you can buy in logistics from a host of service providers.

Cosatu structures are quite specifically related to the job of being a trade union federation and each individual union has even more specific structures and functions related to the business of organising workers around wages, working conditions and bargaining processes.

These structures and functions are not easily “deployed” either into national elections or take-over bids in the ANC – and nor are individual worker members who, by definition, have a day job. Cosatu has always recognised a practical tension between work place issues and national politics – as well as the fact that many of its members follow diverse politics or no politics at all.

When you are running an election every resource and edge feels important but Cosatu in not the prime driver of success in ANC politics – focused inwards or outwards – and many of the real advantages it brings can, in modern electoral and party politics, be paid for.

Perhaps the original question should have been:

What would Cosatu do without the ANC?

Cosatu has – by design and accident – put more emphasis on its political relationship with the ANC. In part this is because: globalisation of the labour processes market, mechanisation of the labour process, the Great Recession (following on the global debt crisis) and the rigidities of the South African labour market have combined to keep employment levels low and falling in this country.

Cosatu membership has, as a consequence, been stagnant or declining from a high of 1.869 million in 2000 and has shifted from productive sectors of the economy towards the public sector.

Cosatu have been tempted into politics because of the difficulties it experienced in the economy. Having chosen or being pushed in this direction, more and more organisational resources have been put at the disposal of the political strategy, further weakening the ability to organise on the shop floor around shop floor issues.

When the union backs the ANC publicly and uses union resources to fight ANC campaigns (or campaigns in the ANC) it is courting a weakening of its organisation, a loss of members and a polarising effect that can leave its leaders isolated. In turn its commitment to the political realm increases as more organisational eggs are put in that basket.

This is where Cosatu is. Even in the late 80’s, at the hight of anti-apartheid resistance, Cosatu was more cautious about ‘playing politics’ than its leadership is now.

In essence the Cosatu leadership is committing more and more irretrievable resources to a strategy that must ‘win’ the centre (the power to direct the state and government policy) if it is to hold on to its members.

Cosatu cannot ‘win’, ‘take over’ or dominate a multi-class organisation like the ANC. If I am right about this and right that this is the strategy that Cosatu has committed to then the trade union federation is destined to become little more than a competing faction in the already fractious ruling party.

I suspect that at some point Cosatu will have its own moral equivalent of Polokwane which will allow a workerist trade union federation to go back to basics and a more politicised Left group to link up with the SACP as a powerful faction within the ANC competing for power and direction with all comers.

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