Presenting the organisational report at Cosatu’s 11th congress in Midrand, Vavi said Cosatu’s political strategy was “at a crossroads”.
Taking stock of political developments since its last national congress three years ago, the hard-hitting report is brutally frank about the state of the ruling alliance and critical of Cosatu itself.
Vavi stressed the “deliberately provocative” report was the product of Cosatu’s collective leadership, which had signed off on it.
“Every time there’s a Cosatu report, the media says Vavi, Vavi,” he said.
“It’s no Vavi report, it’s the report of the collective… I wanted to make that absolutely clear upfront.”
The “deliberately provocative” report was intended to “get us out of our comfort zones”, said Vavi, whose return to office, along with that of the rest of Cosatu’s top six, has been unopposed.
“It presents an argument that says we must change by adopting a new mindset or simply perish… We must rediscover the very purpose of why Cosatu was created 27 years ago.”
While Cosatu had played an increasingly powerful role in shaping the country’s politics, it was operating in a “far from ideal” political environment and facing critical challenges as an organization.
Political battles for “the soul of the movement and control of the state”, between progressive forces on the one hand, and “remnants of the 1996 class project and the new predator elite” on the other, had infected “all levels of the state and movement, from local to national, from leadership to the bureaucracy”.
This meant instability and conflict instead of a coherent political project as there was “constant political zigzagging” between different positions – “further complicated by declining political morality and ideological cohesion as well as growing nepotism, corruption and abuse of the movement for selfish accumulation by people in positions of power”.
As a result, efforts to stabilize the alliance were undermined and it lurched between “excellent co-ordination and unity, to dysfunctionality”. Lack of consistent political leadership meant “we perpetually lurch from temporary advances to political crisis”, as leadership structures were compromised and unable to forge a principled and coherent platform.
Cosatu’s political strategy – as spelled out in its 2015 plan, adopted in 2003 – was at a crossroads as a result.
The question confronting delegates was whether the current strategy would still serve, or needed to be reconsidered and changed, Vavi said.
Vavi said while there were pockets of organisational excellence in Cosatu, some worrying trends were emerging, including:
• Growing social distance between union members and leaders who enjoyed different, wealthier lifestyles and were out of touch as a result. “Vavi used himself as an example – he lived in a garage when first elected general secretary 13 years ago, but now lived in a “leafy suburb”;
• A perception that some union leaders were reluctant to take up issues for fear of embarrassing the ANC;
• A union survey showed more than 10 percent of members were directly aware of corruption in their union, while nearly 35 percent believed their leaders were involved in some form of corruption or selling them out;
• Leaders were being drawn into narrow factional disputes;
• Lack of proper attention to members’ needs had led to small independent unions springing up;
• Some unions were lax about basic organizational rules and procedures and a number of affiliates had not complied with labour department registration requirements;
• Only a quarter of workers surveyed had taken part in a union educational programme and only just over half had attended a union meeting in the past year; and
• Shockingly, only six percent of members canvassed knew who the general secretary or president of their unions were.
“This is a disaster,” Vavi said. Organisational weaknesses were being exploited: workers were being “too easily misled by opportunistic splinter unions, while disgruntled leaders who had fallen foul of union discipline were mobilizing support, using populist tactics” in opposition to their old unions.
Nevertheless, Cosatu’s credibility in broader society in SA and abroad remained high and was something to celebrate.
“We must protect that integrity of Cosatu with our lives,” Vavi said.
The congress ends on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Cosatu delegates showed hand signs signalling support for Jacob Zuma’s ANC leadership for a second term at the trade union federation’s 11th national congress.