Africa News blog

African business, politics and lifestyle

What is COSATU fighting for?

September 27, 2009

South Africa’s largest trade union federation was quick to break into stirring songs of class struggle during its recent congress and COSATU members showed an impressive ability to sign along in unison.

But the question of what it is fighting for these days and its role in the ruling tripartite alliance with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party has never been under such great scrutiny as it has since President Jacob Zuma took office in May.

Zuma’s struggle for power would have been much harder to win – perhaps even impossible – without the support of the unions and he was happy to take centre stage at the COSATU conference in a bright red Mao-style suit.

But while ever ready to promise support for fighting poverty, Zuma has shown scant sign of agreeing to union demands for everything from big increases in spending to the nationalisation of the central bank.

Unions are now preparing to do battle over the fate of Trevor Manuel, who won the respect of markets as finance minister for policies that unions see as too pro-business and who now heads a planning commission in the presidency.

As well having little love for Manuel, unions feel his role is undermining one of their own in the government – Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel.

But the argument highlights the difficulty for COSATU of being both within a broad government it helped bring to power and trying to then pressure that government for changes in the name of a working class struggle.

The face of the union is changing too. Although the theme of the congress was “Consolidating Working Class Power in Defence of Decent Work and for Socialism”, a steady stream of high end German cars made it easy to spot the way to the conference venue.

During the darkest days of apartheid, COSATU leaders struck fear into the white minority ruled-state – they had the ability to bring the country to a grinding halt and they knew it.

Now their power appears more limited over a government they did as much as anyone to put in place.

Picture: A COSATU member marches in Durban in protest against high prices, August 6, 2008. REUTERS/Rogan Ward


The Cosatu union activities are just the tip of the “iceberg”, as many South Africans feel neglected by the once liberation party, who have failed to honour the plethora of election promises over the last 15 years.
It is a tell indictment on the South African government that the recent spate of violence during the latest strikes and service delivery protests have shown a level of lawnessless and criminal activity that was last seen in the 1980s during the height of Apartheid. Even the crime statistics report has shown a marked increase in crime across the board and the SA government still says that all is well and on track for the 2010 soccer world cup…
This Anc is filled with policymakers not activists.

Posted by stan whitham | Report as abusive

COSATU is not doing its members any favours by its actions. The leaders are fatcats getting big bucks and driving fancy cars to the cost of the members.
The government is just as bad – cars, travel, hotels etc.
And ALL are corrupt, greedy and care nothing for the people who put them there by their vote.
PLEASE people, why do we vote them all in again and again?
We are just as bad as the white voters keeping the corrupt appartheid reigime in place ellection after ellection. Why are we doing the same? Can’t we learn from others mistakes and even our own? It has been 15 YEARS – how much longer must we wait for our leaders to perform. It seems government, both national and regional, are becoming more and more reduced by crime, corruption, non-performance, zero service delivery and quite honestly uncaring attitude to the people.

Posted by Peter | Report as abusive

My name is Pamela Mboniso. Im working at a construction company.I want to knwow what does cosatu do for people who need assistance. I tried the BIBC but no one could assist this man.He has been working for this company since 1991 but now they just decided not to give him his pay sheet and give him money in an envelope. He reported this matter 2 months back at the BIBC and they make him run around like a fool.He has been going there but still no change its worse because he is their member he has his memeber card. Now I want to know what should this old man do? He is human and has rights as a white man.He has a family that he has to feed but how he feed his family when he is not paid his full salary. Why do we have unions if they cant stand for us?Why do you call this country a democratical country if some people are special more than others just because they are white and have more money?

Pamela Mboniso

Posted by Mboniso | Report as abusive

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see