POLARISING: Cosatu's Bheki Ntshalintshali, left, deputy president Zingiswa Losi, centre, and president Sdumo Dlamini, right. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
POLARISING: Cosatu's Bheki Ntshalintshali, left, deputy president Zingiswa Losi, centre, and president Sdumo Dlamini, right. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

That Cosatu played a pivotal role in bringing about democracy and a new labour-relations regime based on rights and protection for workers will always be part of its great legacy. Not only did the federation and its affiliates engage in the struggles that brought liberation, but they were also crucial players in the drafting of the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act in the 1990s.

Through the ’90s and even most of the noughties, Cosatu affiliates in several sectors — especially mining and manufacturing — were a force to be reckoned with and established themselves perhaps not quite as partners to employers but certainly as stakeholders whose interests had to be considered.

Corruption is something to lament, not something over which to take action

Much has changed between then and now. When Cosatu held its central committee meeting last week — an important meeting to take stock, held halfway between congresses — the decline was palpable. Not only had Cosatu lost its biggest affiliate – the National Union of Metalworkers of SA but one affiliate – the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union -stayed away because of financial troubles.

Six others were months in arrears in subscription fees and Cosatu itself had run up a deficit of R10m in the two years since the previous congress, said the financial report.

Only one union that organises in the private sector had grown its membership — the Communication Workers Union — while all others had lost members or remained stagnant. That Cosatu has managed to keep an overall membership of about 1.7-million is testament to the growth of the public sector unions and, in turn, public-sector employment growth.

So what has brought about this change of fortunes?

To a large extent, the decline of Cosatu unions is a result of their earlier great success. With majority union status, under the Labour Relations Act, came a host of rights, perks and privileges. Top of these was the ability to shut smaller unions out of the workplace on the basis of having reached a certain threshold of majority representation. With that, went competition for members and with that, the need to excel in providing services to members or, in the worst cases, to provide services at all.

Many unions, especially the big ones, won all kinds of workplace privileges for employees who became full-time union representatives. This included perks like an office, a car and a higher salary than on the shop floor. The involvement of union representatives in brokering services either for the workplace, such as catering, or for members, such as life insurance policies — from which kickbacks could be earned — also bred corruption.

This is not to mention the allure of the pots of money held by pension funds and union investment vehicles, over which workers’ leaders are elected to preside.

Just as the ANC was afflicted by what it calls "the sins of incumbency", so too Cosatu leaders fell victim to the seduction of power and privilege.

In the ANC, this led to factionalism and splintering as groups competed for access to state power and with it proximity to decision-making on how government spends its money. Cosatu is no different. In the past 10 years, unions have proliferated as they split and split again or as personalities who had been pushed out set up new trade union organisations. This has resulted in rounds of litigation as factions contest their right to hold office, with union funds being sucked up to pay lawyers. As general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali stated at the central committee meeting, money is a cancer that is killing the unions.

But like its ally the ANC, corruption in Cosatu is something to lament. It is not something over which to take action or to put in place measures to combat the conflicts of interest. It is this that will be Cosatu’s downfall. As the labour federation watches its power drain away, like the ANC, its leaders are caught in the headlights, unable to let go of the trappings of power, until one day they will be rudely taken away.

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