African business, politics and lifestyle
What is COSATU fighting for?
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