Members of Saftu with general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, centre, during the May Day rally in central Durban. Picture: ROGAN WARD/THE TIMES
Members of Saftu with general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, centre, during the May Day rally in central Durban. Picture: ROGAN WARD/THE TIMES

A few weeks ago we saw the launch of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu). At inception, it became the second largest union federation in SA, with 24 affiliates and about 700,000 members.

The emergence of this new federation is seen by some to signal a new dawn for worker representation, control and democracy. Others see it as presenting a new political praxis, reaching out to informal workers and the vulnerable, unorganised workers who constitute 76% of the total workforce.

In the words of its first general-secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, it is a "broad labour front" which takes seriously outsourced workers, those in the informal sector, the unemployed and students, and even goes as far as accommodating pensioners and retirees.

Marked by its refusal to endorse or align itself with any political party, some have called Saftu a militant alternative to union federation Cosatu. Saftu itself claims to be "democratic, worker-controlled, militant, socialist-oriented, internationalist, pan-Africanist from a Marxist perspective, and inspired by the principles of Marxism-Leninism".

Since there is no mention of a feminist perspective, one is left to wonder about Saftu’s gender politics. How different will its gender politics be from Cosatu’s? Will it resemble and reproduce Cosatu’s gender stance, or reject it and take female workers seriously and appreciate the ways in which workplace struggles are gendered? After all, many of the same people who once led the unapologetically macho Cosatu are now leading Saftu. While I appreciate that it is too early to tell, there are some concerning signs from the vision and events that have recently transpired that leave one apprehensive.


We’ve already seen who the key and influential leaders in the new federation are. At the inaugural congress in April, GroundUp reported the crowds and voting delegates were largely male. Not one of the speakers in the three-day congress was a woman, and out of five people who ran the congress’s proceedings, only one was female. It is therefore not surprising that at the end of the congress only two women were elected to be part of the federation’s six-member executive.

Political and economic issues

Saftu leaders argue they will not be locked in the same (shop-floor) logic as traditional trade unions, which focuses only on wage issues and conditions of work, but will embrace multiple struggles confronting the working-class and the poor. This is evident in the campaigns outlined in its declaration, and its recruitment and organising strategies. But while Saftu tries to address a broad number of issues, it is concerning that its priorities and strategies posit its constituency as gender-neutral at best, or masculine at worst.

For women, the personal is political. This assertion challenges the narrow "political" framework within which most union federations work. The challenges women experience in their daily "personal" lives are the result of systematic, gendered oppressions and massive structural inequalities. To embrace and champion a broad number of struggles, Saftu will have to take seriously the "personal" that is political for female workers.

Core campaigns

While its campaigns speak to crucial issues affecting the working-class and the poor, none of them explicitly addresses the gendered character of these struggles. Take demands for a moratorium on farm evictions, better houses and food security for farm dwellers (who produce the country’s food), in which Saftu talks about "farm workers" as if farm workers experience farm injustices in similar ways.

Farm workers have, time and again, emphasised that female farm workers are worse off than their male counterparts. They are the most vulnerable and precarious; they are the first to be laid off, to have working hours and wages decreased, and to be evicted. This is because farm owners, like their peers in other industries, find it easy to exploit and lay off women without any major ramifications. To champion campaigns that will address the struggles of farm workers, without an appreciation of how these struggles are gendered, is to be ignorant or insensitive to the actual circumstances of their constituents.

While the new federation has very thoughtfully put forward land restoration to the landless, black majority as one of their key focal areas, we know that if the gender question is not dealt with, land will only be restored to men, leaving women landless, especially single mothers who are often in precarious employment.

Lessons from the new student movement

Judging by these basic, yet very telling signs, Saftu has either brushed off the gender question or thinks it can deal with it later. If this is, indeed, the case, Saftu needs to learn a thing or two from the "new" student movements: to neglect gender or downplay its importance is to set the stage for its own failure. For Saftu, this could mean failing to attract the female students who will be joining the workforce in the next few years. Additionally, it could make existing female workers wary of joining unions in Saftu.

The gender question, therefore, has to be addressed differently and creatively if female workers are to be fully serviced and better represented than they were under the old Cosatu vanguard. Without a deliberate effort, the new federation risks reproducing the gender ills of its predecessor and not necessarily marking a new dawn for female workers.

If the new federation does not properly and seriously engage with the question of gender — in all its diversity — women are going to continue to bear the brunt of class exploitation. If Saftu leaders are envisioning a "fundamentally different workers’ organisation" and they want to build a true "shield" for workers, they must not only rethink how they do politics, but also how the ways in which they do politics can be informed by progressive gender politics.

In other words, they have to recognise that the current crises are not only "political, economic and social" — but that they are so in gendered ways.

Dr Benya is a lecturer and research associate at University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand

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