COSATU in South Africa

COSATU & South Africa's Elections

By David Bacon

If Nelson Mandela's African National Congress wins the first
post-apartheid national elections in South Africa on April 27,
the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) will become
the most powerful labor federation in Africa, and one of the most
powerful in the world. South African trade unionists will become
part of the new ANC government. They will play a key role in
determining the course of economic development in the post
apartheid era.

Although COSATU and the ANC are no longer seeking international
economic sanctions, COSATU leaders have been very active in their
efforts to gain support from unions globally, especially in the
industrial countries. Now, however, they are appealing for
solidarity needed to win the elections. As part of this
international effort, COSATU General Secretary Jay Naidoo came to
San Francisco in October 1993, to address the AFL-CIO's national
convention and ask unions to send election observers to South

The April elections will dismantle the old apartheid structure
built on the denial of basic economic and political rights to the
Black majority. Those who held power in the old system will hold
it no longer. Their places will be taken by representatives of
organizations like the ANC and the non-racial trade unions, which
were illegal until just two years ago.

Twenty national COSATU leaders have been chosen to run for the
new, nonracial parliament. Naidoo, as well as Moses Mayekiso,
head of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, and
defendant in one of South Africa's notorious treason trials, will
give up their union positions to become candidates with Mandela
at the top of the ANC list.

Throughout the past six months, the industrial unions which make
up COSATU have held conventions to decide how to participate in
the election process, and a special COSATU congress to outline
the union's program for a post-apartheid South Africa, and
campaign for an ANC victory.

While negotiations to end apartheid have gone on over the past
year, the South African government has moved quickly to privatize
many of the enormous state enterprises which constitute the heart
of the country's industrial economy, thus removing them from the
control of a new ANC government. New industrial investment is
practically nonexistent. The World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund advise South Africa to take advantage of wages up
to ten times lower than those in Taiwan to concentrate on labor
intensive industries for export, including the production of
steel, coal, garments, and shoes.

COSATU opposes these plans for creating a low-wage export
economy. It calls for a 14 percent wage increase to compensate
for declining living standards, and a halt to layoffs which have
brought unemployment to as much as 50 percent of Black workers.
In negotiations around the proposed constitution, recently
approved by the ANC and the South African government, COSATU
protested proposals which would have allowed employers to lockout
strikers and guaranteed the jobs of the all-white civil service.

"We have to have an economic program," Naidoo declared, "that can
deliver the goods to our people, and ensure their vote is not
meaningless. We need to go into government to defend a workers'

In many African countries, trade union leaders often become
ministers of labor. But COSATU will not only be in charge of
employment issues in a new ANC government. Many observers expect
that Naidoo, who after Mandela is one of the country's most
popular leaders, will have charge of the country's economic
development program as a whole.

COSATU represents 1.7 million members. It is a federation of
unions representing all sections of the workforce, organized on
the principle of "one industry, one union." The presence of its
leaders on the ANC's list of candidates reflects an alliance that
began when the federation was formed in 1986, and the particular
characteristics of a long struggle that has taken place in an
overwhelmingly industrial country.

COSATU inherits the radical, and for many years illegal,
tradition of forming non-racial trade unions. When apartheid was
consolidated by the Nationalist government in 1949, legislation
was passed which forced unions to represent only white workers or
only black workers. Unions which refused, such as the South
African Congress of Trade Unions, were driven into exile.
Together with the ANC and the South African Communist Party, they
were forced to conduct their activities underground for many

As the struggle against apartheid swelled again in the late 1970s
and early 1980s, unions among Black workers were reorganized. In
1986, most of them were consolidated in the formation of COSATU.
For the first time, Black workers had the power to shut down the
country's mining industry, the heart of the economy. COSATU
called a series of national general strikes, called "stay-at-
homes" because even the word "strike" was outlawed. These helped
to destabilize the apartheid government, forced it to unban the
ANC, and eventually led to the current negotiations and

When Black unions came together to form COSATU, their movement
was already larger than any union federation in the country's
history. "We fought for the rights of workers on the factory
floor," Naidoo remembered. "But we simultaneously made sure that
the struggle for political freedom was also on our agenda. That
is why we are strong now."

The ANC and COSATU have written a common program for the
reconstruction and development of South Africa. "We support the
ANC," Naidoo says, "because it has the track record and the
support of the people, to be able to deliver a better life."

Although the ANC and COSATU are allies, their positions on
economic development differ. The ANC's Freedom Charter, adopted
in the 1950s, declared its commitment to nationalization of
enterprises in the interest of the Black majority. In the last
few years, however, as actual power has come within sight, the
ANC has been under enormous pressure to give up that commitment
in order to attract foreign investment.

"As COSATU, our official position is to fight for socialism,"
according to Muzi Buthelezi, deputy secretary of the Chemical
Workers Industrial Union. "In practice, however, we will consider
nationalizing key industries only if it will benefit workers. For
instance, the pharmaceutical industry might be nationalized to
increase healthcare access, or the cement industry in order to
speed the building of housing. We don't follow any particular
model. We simply want a socio-economic system sensitive to the
needs of the people."

When some figures within the ANC proposed to give up a special
code of conduct for foreign corporations seeking to invest in
South Africa, voices in COSATU were raised in criticism.
Similarly, when a proposed section for the new constitution
defined property rights so that land could not be expropriated
and redistributed to Black farmers, COSATU opposition forced its

COSATU's structure brings it very close to its 1.2 million
members. All its officers work full-time in the factory or
workplace, something unheard of in the U.S. labor movement. Its
30,000 shop stewards will conduct a voter education campaign for
the ANC, along with people released from each union and from over
300 workplaces. "We have rank-and-file activists in every shop,
factory and mine," Naidoo claimed proudly, "who are in daily
contact with our constituency. Workers know us much better than
the political parties."

The ANC will rely on COSATU's grassroots network to win the
election. The ANC constituency bears the legacy of apartheid.
Over 60 percent of COSATU members cannot read or write. Black
people have not voted in an election in living memory. "It is our
constituency that doesn't know how to vote," Naidoo says. "The
whites know how to vote."

An even greater obstacle to an ANC victory is massive violence.
Tens of thousands of people in South Africa have already been
killed in terrorist attacks on commuters and in the apartheid
townships. COSATU and the ANC charge that as each step is taken
in negotiations towards the end of the apartheid government, the
attacks increase. Bangumzi Sifingo, COSATU's international
relations officer, alleges that violence is intended to
destabilize society and to frighten the country's Black majority
from participating in the election process. "Violence will
increase in the runup to the election," he predicted.

"We don't want to become like Angola," Naidoo explained, "where
the MPLA has won the election, but is unable to govern. Very
powerful forces in South Africa are opposed to democracy, and are
determined to use any means, including extremely violent means,
to destabilize our democratic transition." The task of educating
voters amid violent intimidation seems daunting. But the ANC says
change is "irreversible" in South Africa, and that violence and
illiteracy are obstacles which can be overcome. "The point is,"
Naidoo concluded, "that we will reclaim our dignity and we will
reclaim it now."

                  END ZMAGAZINE   FEBRUARY 1994
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