Former general secretary of COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi, announces launch of new federation on May Day.

Former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, centre, joins a Numsa protest in Durban in 2014. Reuters/Rogan Ward

Former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, centre, joins a Numsa protest in Durban in 2014. Reuters/Rogan Ward

South Africa’s powerful labour confederation COSATU has been plagued with splits and in-fighting for the past three years. It has now officially split, and a new confederation will be launched on 1 May.

At its heart, the COSATU conflict has been about whether the union movement should be controlled by its members, or whether it should serve political parties. COSATU is in a formal alliance with the governing African National Congress (ANC) party, as well as the South African Communist Party (SACP).  In recent years, the federation has become closer to the party, and has prioritised the political arena over workplace organising. There is also a growing gap between union leaders and members, and a shift towards a focus on the public sector.

To some extent, this is a consequence of the structure of labour relations in South Africa: South Africa has a national, tripartite policy forum called NEDLAC, comprised of organised labour, business and government, and unions are involved in sector-wide collective bargaining over terms and conditions. While collective bargaining cover has helped win for workers, this institutionalisation of unions has turned them into organisations building consensus. Decisions made by negotiators at national level have demobilised activists and members and increased bureaucracy. The new federation aims to return to the more militant and confrontational form of trade unionism practiced during the apartheid.

The COSATU split reflects a fundamental divide over where union power and influence lies: with workers at shopfloor level, or delivered on high through a sympathetic government. This is a conflict that divides the labour movement across the world, though rarely as acutely as South Africa.

Events like the Marikana massacre, and the waves of wildcat action that followed in the agricultural and mining sectors, show that the consensus has broken down, and have exposed a dissatisfaction among rank and file members about the level of support and representation they receive.

This means that South Africa will now have five union federations, further dividing workers at a time when they need unity more than ever. South Africa is faced with rising inequality that has been made worse by the global economic economic crisis. The collapse in commodity prices has affected the country badly, particularly in platinum mining and the steel industry. Only the falling currency has prevented more job losses.

The new federation is likely to be a powerful political force, as it includes metalworkers’ union NUMSA. NUMSA was expelled from COSATU in 2014 after refusing to support the ANC and SACP due to anti-worker policies such as privatisation. With 340,000 members, NUMSA is the largest and most powerful union in South Africa, and possibly the continent. The new federation – which has yet to announce a name – will not support any political party, but will be explicitly political. The federation will include other COSATU unions and splits from COSATU unions, which share a self-declared Marxist understanding of class struggle.

Despite concerns about further splitting workers, labour analyst Steve Friedman argues in the Mail & Guardian that the new federation might lead to the renewal of the union movement in South Africa by giving workers a genuine, militant alternative.

The other federations are:

  • COSATU, by far the biggest, was born out of the anti-apartheid struggle, and is closely linked to the ruling ANC and the South African Communist Party.
  • NACTU, a much smaller and more poorly resourced federation, comes out of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness tradition. It includes as its affiliates AMCU, whose supporters were shot in the Marikana massacre.
  • FEDUSA, a mostly white collar federation that evolved out of the former whites only unions of the apartheid era; and
  • CONSAWU, a loose and apolitical alliance of small unions outside of the mainstream.

All confederations are aligned to the international movement through the ITUC, although COSATU is also toying with affiliation to the rival WFTU confederation.


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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