With new powers to intervene in troubled affiliates and an extended term in office from three to four years for national leaders, the new Cosatu leadership believes the union federation is rising from the ashes.
"We have emerged from the worst chapter," said newly elected president Zingiswa Losi to loud applause.
The federation has been in a state of decline and paralysis since 2013, when infighting threatened its survival. It has lacked relevance among workers and society ever since, with its dwindling membership pointing to struggles by its affiliates to attract members.
Cosatu’s four-day 13th national congress, which ended on Thursday, adopted several resolutions aimed at reviving the once mighty federation that had 2.2-million members in 2012.
Its membership now stands at 1.6-million following the expulsion of SA’s biggest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, in 2014 for expanding its scope.
Cosatu was also hit by the disaffiliation of three unions and the loss of thousands of other workers who formed splinter unions at the peak of the infighting.
The adopted resolutions will guide the way forward. However, the challenge will be the implementation of the programmes. Cosatu wants to re-establish itself in workplaces across the country through mass mobilisation campaigns and by advocating unity in its affiliates and among workers.
"From this congress we will be convening marches and protest actions around the country in defence of jobs, demanding health and safety in workplaces and calling for a living wage. Part of this will be calling for changes in the labour laws to remove obstacles and bureaucratic red tape on the section 77 notice to have unions call for protest action without having to follow a long administrative process," said general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali.
Cosatu will also push for the establishment of a comprehensive social security system. In its declaration, the federation said it welcomed a recent agreement by social partners at the National Economic Development and Labour Council to establish a national social security fund to finance the scheme.
The SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu), which is split in half and has not been paying affiliation fees to Cosatu, is the test case for the new leaders. The congress resolved that they could, at the instruction of the central executive committee, issue orders to unions beset with myriad challenges.
On Thursday it was decided that Samwu, which attended the congress as an observer, should convene a congress to elect new leaders.
Cosatu also faces new threats of deregistration for non-compliance with the Labour Relations Act provisions regulating the functions of unions. The new labour registrar for labour relations, advocate Lehlohonolo Molefe, has vowed to clamp down on unions for noncompliance. On Wednesday, labour minister Mildred Oliphant told the 2,000 congress delegates that she would not intervene when the labour registrar came knocking. She confirmed that many unions, including Cosatu affiliates, were in a state of disrepair.
Oliphant, a former Cosatu member, has for a long time been viewed as protective of the federation’s affiliates, with the Labour Court in 2016 declaring the office of the labour registrar independent of her influence.