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McKinley, Dale T (2004) COSATU Congress confirms retreat from independence to subordination. Centre for Civil Society : -.

As the recently held 8th COSATU Congress was winding down, a senior COSATU leader, perhaps inadvertently, summed up the harsh reality of worker expectations: “we can only hope that these issues (discussed at the Congress) will eventually be adequately dealt with”.

Indeed, it would seem as though ‘hope’ is about the only thing that COSATU can count on these days: hope, that Alliance leaders really do mean what they say to the workers about political democracy and socio-economic justice; hope that corporate capital can be ‘disciplined’ enough by a vibrant and ideologically tight Alliance to give up its penchant for casualising labour and profit maximisation at the expense of the working class; hope that the SACP can become more than just a top-down socialist talk-shop and someday lead the workers into the glorious second stage of the national democratic revolution (NDR); and, hope that somehow the ANC will actually take the struggles and demands of organised workers and poor communities seriously enough to force a radical change in government’s neo-liberal socio-economic policies that are causing such devastation to the majority of South Africans.

The expectations of workers in COSATU have not always been hostage to such unrealistic hopes. Almost ten years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the democratic victory of 1994, COSATU’s future looked bright. There was a confident belief that its special political positioning as the leading force of the working class in the alliance with the ANC-SACP would provide organised workers with the political and organisational means to influence, fundamentally, the character of the newly captured state and the socio-economic policies it would implement. Expectations were high. COSATU was, by far, the largest and most organised working class force, its members had democratically forged a socialist-oriented programme in the cut and thrust of struggle and there was a burgeoning relationship with a more ideologically open and growing SACP that possessed the potential to offer meaningful intellectual and strategic assistance to organised workers.

However, less than a decade later, the reality for COSATU is that it now finds itself politically marginalized. The deployment of hundreds of rank and file members and scores from the leadership ranks, as ‘loyal and disciplined’ members of the ANC, into various state structures has not delivered the kind of political influence expected from an organisation fulfilling the ‘leading role’ of the working-class. Instead, what has been ‘delivered’ is a hard lesson (clearly not yet learnt by a majority of COSATU members) in the necessity for political independence, and thus political accountability, of direct representatives of the working class.

Reliance on a SACP that, over the years, has turned its back of working class struggle and opted instead for the political benefits and material comforts of providing rhetorical left cover for the rightward shift of the ANC, has not produced a dynamic core of politicised worker-socialists, willing and able to implement COSATU’s socialist programme. Rather, such reliance has reproduced a new generation of union leaders steeped in a neo-Stalinist political and organisational methodology that privileges a nebulous NDR over explicit working-class struggle. The result has been the inculcation of an ANC-type, petit-bourgeois politics that has confused workers and often, ended up politically paralysing the various socio-economic struggles of organised workers.

Even those agreements with the state and private sector that COSATU and its alliance partners have hailed as ‘successes’, such as the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, have been extremely difficult to enforce, especially when there is a lack of mandatory centralised bargaining and workplace forums are separated from collective bargaining structures in the workplace. Many other worker-related basic demands (especially in the public sector) such as consistent inflation-related wage increases, putting a halt to the scaling down of medical/housing allowances and protecting the jobs of the lowest paid/skilled workers have also been largely ignored.

More devastating to workers though, is that none of COSATU’s (post-1994) major socio-economic and political demands have been implemented as government policy. These demands included (amongst others): the complete abolition of Value Added Tax; the decommodification of basic needs/ services such as water, electricity, healthcare, housing and education; the effective socialisation of the mining and financial sectors; a halt to the privatisation of public assets and the consolidation and expansion of parastatals to drive state-led infrastructural development and job creation; the ‘freeing-up’ of the billions of Rand in the government pension fund for tackling poverty; a grassroots-based, participatory budget process at all levels of government; a foreign policy that supports the struggles of progressive domestic and international ‘civil society’ as well as struggles for national self-determination and democracy (particularly in the Southern Africa region); and, the cancellation of the apartheid debt and the payment of full reparations to apartheid’s victims.

In any objective sense then, this litany of the failures of the Alliance to act as a meaningful political vehicle for COSATU and the working-class interests it shoulders should have seen COSATU affiliates and leaders furiously engendering discussions at the 8th Congress around intensifying class struggle and political alternatives to the alliance. Instead, the Congress turned out to be more of an alliance political rally dominated by speeches from ANC-SACP leaders, limited debate and the same stale rhetoric from the COSATU leadership simultaneously decrying the continuing ineffectiveness of the alliance and recycling the same ineffective insider ‘solutions’. One worker delegate proclaimed in exasperation that, “the first two days were like an ANC rally”.

Indeed, the sum of Congress resolutions on COSATU’s alliance with the ANC-SACP focused on exactly the same meaningless bureaucratic rhetoric that has characterised so many previous ‘engagements’ with the sterility of the alliance and the failure of COSATU to translate its organisational power into policy influence: a better functioning ‘political centre’ for the alliance to drive government policy; another ‘common programme’ to ‘strengthen’ the alliance; regular meetings of the alliance leadership; more ‘space for the working class to protest’ against anti-worker government policy; and, yet another ‘review’ of government’s macro-economic policies to ensure they ‘create, not destroy jobs’.

The Congress did begin a process of engaging the serious organisational and financial problems that are afflicting many COSATU affiliates. And yet, the unwillingness to draw the links with COSATU’s political relationship with the ANC-SACP as well as the effects of the ANC government’s neo-liberal policies on workers ensures that the roots of such problems cannot, and will not, be fundamentally tackled. Similarly, a watered-down resolution on COSATU’s engagement with new social movements simply acknowledged the growth of these movements and the need to address the issues they are raising. There was absolutely no attempt to situate the very basis for the existence of such social movements within the context of both the ANC government’s neo-liberal policies and a politically non-functioning, defensive and reactive alliance. This ensures that COSATU will continue to lose the ‘plot’ in combining political leadership and organisational power to intensify and broaden the common struggles of organised workers and poor communities.

COSATU’s 8th Congress was a huge step backwards for organised workers and indeed, the entire working class in South Africa. There was an abject failure to confront the realities of its alliance with the ANC-SACP, the political necessity and radical potential of rapidly increasing community struggles and the demands of progressive trade unionism in the context of the domestic and international dominance of capitalist neo-liberalism.

These failures have been, and continue to be, sustained by the willingness and ability of the COSATU leadership, alongside those of its alliance partners, to make elite-compacts at the expense of the interests and struggles of the workers and poor. In South Africa’s present economic and political circumstances, framed by the strategic vision and practical pursuit of a deracialised capitalism, such elitist compacts only serve to further entrench the class interests of corporate capitalists and an emergent black bourgeoisie. The elite-led political and economic corporatism that continues to be pursued by the COSATU leadership will leave workers further divided organisationally and with consistently less political leverage over socio-economic change.

Even more fundamentally, the political ‘management of contradictions’ (on such flagrant display at the COSATU’s 8th Congress) that is ostensibly meant to ensure the ‘unity’ of the alliance, serves to redirect working-class struggle away from where it needs to be - attacking the exploitative nature of capitalist productive and social relations. For example, what does COSATU’s call for an alliance agreement on industrial policy mean in the context of an economy in which private capital holds the vast majority of the wealth and controls the productive levers? Likewise, how is COSATU going to use the alliance to force the state to ‘successfully’ implement a strategy of job creation if the ANC ‘people’s’ government is not, at the same time, willing to attack the basic productive control of the capitalists and to take key productive decisions effectively outside of the market? These are political questions that the COSATU leadership dare not ask as loyal members of an alliance, dedicated as it is to the realisation of a vague NDR. Yet, they are questions that any workers organisation must not only ask, but must find ways to concretely address.

As long as COSATU continues to believe that a strategically paralytic alliance still represents the one and only revolutionary vehicle for transforming South African society, so too will it render all working class struggles and the broader struggle for socialism, that much less effective and meaningful. What is becoming clearer for much of the working class is that the alternative – i.e., a move towards the political and organisational independence of working class forces in South Africa - will not lead to further political marginalisation and entrenchment of capitalist neo-liberalism. Indeed, it is the continuation of the course chosen by COSATU at its 8th Congress that will intensify such outcomes.

While the alliance might continue to survive for some time, for COSATU, there can be no political ‘third way’. The political and organisational independence of working class forces is fundamental to any vision of COSATU playing a central role in shaping and revolutionising South African society. Anything less simply means increased subordination.

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