COSATU: The state of the Nation

Cosatu’s Political Discussion Document produced last year, provides useful background reading in the run up to Cosatu Congress. Woody Aroun* takes you through the document.
In December 2002 COSATU tabled a political discussion document at the federation’s annual Central Executive Committee (CEC). The purpose of the document was to take stock of current political, economic and social events in South Africa and present these issues to affiliates for discussion as the trade union federation prepares for its 8th National Congress in 2003.
The document covers the following three areas:
Socio-Economic Conditions Balance of Forces: Capital / Opposition political parties / the State and the Democratic Revolution Priorities for Cosatu between now and the 2003 Congress: Programme of action 2003
1. Socio-Economic Conditions
The federation acknowledges that some changes have occurred in the economic environment (transformation of the labour market through the implementation of new labour laws, etc) and in areas of social delivery.
But the paper goes on to say that these gains have been offset by rising unemployment, deepening levels of poverty and a growing divide between rich and poor people. Quoting Statistics South Africa, it says that joblessness rose from 16% of the labour force in 1995 to almost 30% today.
In people terms the number of unemployed has risen from around two million to over four million during the period 1995-2002. Apart from unemployment, rising food prices, and a fall in real income levels, “the opening of the economy has seen a decline in formal jobs”, says Cosatu. Cosatu argues that as a result of low levels of income, consumers are finding it difficult to pay for food and services such as health, housing, water, electricity, transport, communication and housing.
According to the federation, these conditions have worsened as a result of slow economic growth and low investment, as South African companies continue to move their profits abroad. The impact of unemployment and job losses on the federation has been significant.
And as union membership has declined this has put a financial squeeze on many affiliates. Strategies to protect jobs against restructuring, and recruitment of members in the informal and SMME sector are some of the options that the federation has to consider to consolidate its power in the workplace.
The paper goes on to explore some of the pillars of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and government’s response to this programme. COSATU maintains that government’s policy is contradictory.
Cuts in social spending (tight fiscal policy) will not alleviate poverty. High interest rates to curb inflation have hampered economic growth. The South African government’s reluctance to intervene in the free market*, says Cosatu, is the root cause for slow economic growth.
Free Market
Market in which people trade and produce goods without too much regulation/s; private ownership of goods and services, profit making, little or intervention in the economy by government
To conclude COSATU looks at some proposals to boost job creation and the national economy. “Support for new centres of capital” (co-ops and the state sector as the main forms of collective ownership), and “support for labour intensive activities that can create jobs on a larger scale” form part of these proposals.
2. Balance of forces: Capital / Opposition Political Parties / the State and the Democratic Revolution
In this section the federation examines the history of capital, the primary sectors of the economy (finance and mining, the public sector, manufacturing and agriculture) and the relationship of capital to the state. New entrants in the economy in the form of black capital and the government’s broad-based Black Economic Empowerment strategy will not, according to COSATU ” broaden ownership overall” Instead COSATU sees the new black upper class as a hostile group to workers and their movement.
As far as opposition political parties (DA and NNP) and the ultra-right are concerned, Cosatu is of the opinion that they “do not currently wield any real influence”, and that the predominantly Black opposition parties (IFP, PAC, UDM & ACDP) have no clear programme. For Cosatu the balance of forces swing between the movement’s ability to challenge capital and capital’s power to render the movement harmless.
Cosatu believes that the rising black elite has a different perspective on transformation and that changing the complexion of capital will not solve the country’s economic problems. Collective ownership is the only way to redress the economic inequalities and provide for genuine change and development.
The Alliance
COSATU has raised several critical issues in this section:
(a) That there are forces hostile to Cosatu and the Alliance in the form of a “small but very vocal block that is trying to win the day by changing the culture of the ANC itself”.
Some of the tendencies used by this “vocal block” include:
the group tries to order anyone who disagrees simply to shut up Intolerance – any dissent is seen as as disloyal or even counter-revolutionary Paranoia – any attempt to raise a different perspective is seen as part of a conspiracy to overthrow the current leadership Personal abuse – spreading of malicious rumours have become commonplace Distorting opponents’ position – the group typically tries to discredit opponents by publishing a ridiculous and untrue version of their arguments use or misuse of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric to sell the capitalist ideology of Adam Smith, while running away from a working class perspective or systematic class analysis
Cosatu argues that “if members of this group win more power, we can say goodbye to the NDR, the Alliance , the ANC traditions of openness and serving the poor, and indeed to our democratic victory”.
(b) The federation admits that the Alliance has failed to come up with common positions on a number of important issues, e.g. the Growth and Development Summit, privatisation, etc. Cosatu says that the Ekurhuleni Summit agreed on a process to resolve differences on policy issues but this has not happened.
(c) COSATU reaffirms its commitment to work with formations in civil society like South African Council of Churches and the SA Catholic Bishops Conference, COSAS & SASCO, Sangoco, women’s structures, and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). The federation also commits itself to work with SANCO, but feels that it may have to “review its strategies in light of SANCO”˜s action around the October strike.” In 2002 SANCO disassociated itself from the anti-privatisation strike called by the federation.
(d) Referring to what it calls “ultra-left groups”, COSATU says that the federation is unable to work closely with the ultra-left groups because “we differ on basic principles.”
Strategies for engagement underpin the rest of the document, including the federation’s view on managing mass action and engagement: “We cannot afford to give up mass action just because some people don’t like it”, says Cosatu. If you want to read the full copy, get one from your local/regional office or off Cosatu’s web site –
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