South Africa is in need of a trade union federation that will advance the interests of the workers not only in the labour market, but also within the communities they live, said former Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said on Satuday.

Numsa president Andrew Chirwa said the success of the workers summit has silenced the prophets of doom. He also branded Cosatu “shop stewards for the Guptas” where no one speaks for the workers anymore.

Delivering a keynote speech at the workers’ summit held in Ekurhuleni on April 30, Vavi said there was an urgent need for a new federation in the country “with no kings and queens” but one that would be worker controlled and not influenced by political parties.

With only thirty of the 50 unions that were expected to attend the summit present, delegates only managed to fill up half of the large tent where the proceedings took place, however.
For a historic moment, delegates didn’t show much enthusiasm as many arrived late, while others seemed confused as to why they were at the summit – resulting in a two-hour delay to the scheduled programme. 

While metalworkers union Numsa had the majority of delegates, other unions such as Solidarity, Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), National Union of Trade Unions (Nactu), Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), South African Policing Unions (Sapu) and civil society organisations were also present. Numsa deputy president Christine Olivier lashed out at Cosatu saying it was a shadow of what it used to be and a federation that has abandoned the workers in favour of self-interested politicians. 

The workers summit was not just an attack on Cosatu and its alliance partners; it was a platform to launch a new labour federation, which Vavi and colleagues say must be “unapologetic, democratic, independent, financially self-sufficient, socialist oriented, a militant and fighting working-class organisation”. Some key principles of this new federation are however borrowed from the same “disgraced Cosatu”, but Vavi asserted that the new federation would not only fight for permanent workers but “part-time workers and the unemployed, especially young people”.

The former Cosatu general secretary said it was worrying that only 24 percent of workers currently belong to unions, with young people making up a very small percentage. According Vavi, the remaining 76 percent of workers not unionised should be targeted for the new federation.

While the unions were in agreement that a new federation was needed, they seemed unsure as to how the federation should operate especially if they want to avoid falling into the trap of outside influence, mainly from what Vavi called the “predatory elite”. Kagiso Mokaina, from the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (Nupsaw) said “experience has taught us that politicians cannot be trusted” and urged delegates “to rally against the ANC’s pension fund tax reform” as it has resulted in massive resignations in the public service.  

National Transport Movement general secretary Ephraim Mphahlele urged other unions to actively fight against the bad working conditions, especially the casualisation of quality jobs, labour broking, and corruption within South African society.  

However, Nactu said it was more concerned by the lack of women leadership within unions. It called for more women in decision-making positions, not just as deputies. Other delegates were preoccupied with the fact that with independence comes different ideologies and politics, while the issue of racism in the workplace received little attention.

Delegates declared the workers summit a huge success “as it has now become a matter of when and not if a new federation will see the light of day”. The unions acknowledged that many of the challenges faced by Cosatu would also threaten the new federation. This included issues such “as autonomy of the unions versus the independence of the federation, whether financial self-sufficiency would mean that the individual unions are not depended on the federation for survival, whether the federation will have an investment company might cause financial irregularities or corruption to creep into the organisation”. 

One of the delegates summed it up nicely that for the new federation to survive,they must never kick an alliance through the door and bring it back through the window’.