Singing, crying ... women besides themselves with joy at the election of Zingiswa Losi as Africa's first female trade union president following her election to the Cosatu post. Picture: THETO MAHLAKOANA
Singing, crying ... women besides themselves with joy at the election of Zingiswa Losi as Africa's first female trade union president following her election to the Cosatu post. Picture: THETO MAHLAKOANA

Cosatu has come out of its 13th national congress emboldened by the idea that things can only get better. At some level this is true. Cosatu has hit rock bottom over the past six years. The infighting and political backbiting has provided a most entertaining spectacle for journalists and the public: there have been forensic investigations, sex scandals, court cases, electoral high jinks and meetings running into the small hours of the morning.

Its longest-serving general secretary fell out with everyone else in the federation’s top leadership and was ousted, going on to establish a rival federation that is proving to be a thorn in the side of both Cosatu and its ruling party ally, the ANC.

There was also the small matter of the expulsion of 340,000 members of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), the country’s largest single union. At least five smaller unions walked out in protest.

As if these self-inflicted wounds weren’t enough, the economy has not been kind to workers and, by extension, to unions. The federation has lost thousands of members to retrenchments, casualisation or workers simply concluding that they can no longer afford to pay union dues. The loss of Numsa and its allies, combined with the membership bleed, has crippled Cosatu financially: it has taken money away from the recruitment, organising and servicing of existing members — the very things that could stem the further loss of members and help reverse the tide. SA’s largest labour federation is caught in a vicious cycle of decline.

From this point, the only way, surely, must be up. At least that is what Cosatu’s new leadership believes.

We must challenge the conceptual basis of the fourth industrial revolution. African revolutions have preceded the British industrial revolution. Therefore, it cannot be correct to refer to the age of robots and digitalisation as the fourth industrial revolution

Superficially, there are encouraging signs. For the first time in its 32-year history Cosatu has a woman as its president — no small achievement in the masculinist world of organised labour.

Zingiswa Losi has vowed that her elevation will lead to an increased focus on women’s struggle for equality in the workplace. Half of the top leadership is now female, and Cosatu has promised to enshrine gender equity in its constitution.

"For the first time we have [plans to constitutionalise] the gender structure in Cosatu," Losi said after her election. She has also promised to make the fight against sexual violence in the workplace a focal point.

Tackling such struggles may boost Cosatu’s appeal to potential members. Women make up an increasing proportion of the workforce but have lower levels of unionisation than their male counterparts. Even where unions do a good job of serving women as workers, they often fail to appeal to them as women.

Then there is Cosatu’s Young Workers Forum, which is meant to come up with ideas to attract younger workers into the labour movement. This is also promising. The average unionised worker in SA is an African male in his 40s. Unions cannot grow their numbers without redirecting their attention towards women and younger, often new, entrants to the job market.

In its political report, the federation says it will "consciously and creatively target youth, women, migrant workers, casualised and part-time workers".

And therein lies the rub. These potential recruits are often in jobs and workplaces that old-style unions are battling to understand, let alone organise.

Which brings us to the elephant in the conference hall: the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and the unfathomable changes it is already bringing to the world of work, systems of production and the very notion of what a "job" is. At this point it becomes clear that no matter how much Cosatu may seem to have hit the bottom, it is possible to go down further still.

The federation has not even scratched the surface in understanding the changes the world is living through in the early 21st century. The rhetoric from the congress on 4IR is straight out of last century. The approach is combative, but seemingly without strategy; radical sounding, but aimed at preserving the old rather than embracing the new; it paints Cosatu as reactionary at the precise moment in which it needs to be innovative.

Picture: 123RF/neyro2008
Picture: 123RF/neyro2008

"Linked … is the reality of the changing world of work where the fourth industrial revolution threatens millions of jobs. It calls for business and government to plan for a just transition to the fourth industrial revolution," the federation notes in its final conference declaration. "We accept that the changes imposed by the fourth industrial revolution cannot be wished away and that the changing nature of work is inevitable."

Besides shifting the responsibility of dealing with 4IR towards business and government only, the federation also displays a shocking lack of political maturity in its characterisation of the process.

The political report dedicates too much space to assailing the very notion of a 4IR as an imperialist plot: "We must challenge the conceptual basis of the fourth industrial revolution. African revolutions have preceded the British industrial revolution.

"Therefore, it cannot be correct to refer to the age of robots and digitalisation as the fourth industrial revolution when there were other revolutions prior to the imperial British revolution which was driven by slavery and colonisation."

This is all well and good. But the 4IR is here already and Cosatu’s failure to adopt tangible measures may result in its worst fears becoming a reality — that the increased mechanisation and automation of the workforce will lead to a jobs bloodbath.

Luckily for SA workers, there are those who take the changes that are now under way more seriously. Some of them are within Cosatu itself, such as its affiliates in mining and textiles.

Says Paule France Ndessomin, Southern Africa regional secretary for IndustriALL Global Union’s Sub-Saharan Africa branch: "Unions are modernising to attract young workers by responding to changes at the factory and workplaces. Further, unions are also fighting for young workers to have permanent contracts at work, and Numsa recently won a Constitutional Court victory on the banning of labour brokers. Yes, unions are modernising and this has direct links to the sectors that they organise.

"The NUM [National Union of Mineworkers] is also involved in discussions to introduce robots being mooted by the Minerals Council SA, especially in the deep mines."

Ndessomin says the automotive sector has led the way in the introduction of robotic technology in its production processes. For example, at the Ford assembly plant in Silverton, Pretoria, part of the line functions are performed by robots. Numsa, which organises workers at the plant, is promoting the upskilling of its members to operate in the new environment.

The Southern African Clothing & Textile Workers’ Union is proving itself a leader in adapting to new technologies and methods to service its members and grow its numbers. The union is experimenting with big data analytics to understand its members, where they work, and the sector more broadly.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Solidarity has turned itself into more than just a union; it has become a multipronged socioeconomic empowerment movement.

What it means

Cosatu does its members a disservice by failing to properly engage with the demands of the fourth industrial revolution

"Solidarity realised that if its members want to survive the knowledge era they will need to possess knowledge. To help our members achieve this, we start our efforts at preschool level, where we provide meals to around 5,000 preschoolers a day. We run various programmes at primary and high school level to ensure and maintain excellence in schools, and we assist with the training of hundreds of teachers a year," says the union’s Dirk Hermann.

"We grant study aid of around R40m a year to assist children of members who are in financial need so they can study at tertiary institutions. We have built a technical college, Sol-Tech, which trains more than 1,000 artisans a year. We have established a new private university, Akademia, and we plan to build a fully fledged residential campus … with the capacity to accommodate approximately 5,000 students."

The point, for Cosatu, is that technology and the changes it brings should never be seen as the enemy. In fact, it is probable that the 4IR will be a net creator rather than destroyer of jobs, especially if SA invests in the skills, technologies and ecosystems necessary to adapt. The jobs to be created will be different to anything that exists now.

According the World Economic Forum’s "Future of Jobs" report, "65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up in completely new job types that do not yet exist".

That is not as far into the future as it may seem. A new primary school entrant today may be ready to enter the job market in just 12 years. If Cosatu is to survive and even thrive in this new environment, it is imperative that the federation reckons with changes that are both unfathomable and imminent.

Musgrave is a founder and partner at strategy consultancy LeftHook. She has more than 20 years’ experience reporting and researching labour politics