The South African Federation of Trade Unions [Saftu] last week successfully threw down the gauntlet to the three established labour federations in South Africa. The turnouts in major centres around the country for the protest strike called on Wednesday revealed clearly that Saftu has substantial support.
The strike call was aimed at "all workers irrespective of affiliation" and was in accordance with the Labour Relations Act that allows strike action to "promote and defend socioeconomic interests of workers". In this case, the protest was against the "poverty level" of the proposed R20 an hour minimum wage and against amendments to the labour laws that would curtail the right to strike.
For the one-time behemoth of the local labour movement, the ANC and government-aligned Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), this was particularly galling. Especially so because the two largest affiliates of Saftu are former Cosatu members, and the general secretary of the new federation, Zwelinzima Vavi, was the former general secretary of Cosatu.
So Cosatu, which can still perhaps accurately claim some 1.2-million members, and the 515,000-member strong Federation of Unions [Fedusa] strongly opposed the strike, referring to it as "grandstanding" and "a waste of time". These federations, together with the smaller National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), are the labour representatives on the National Economic Development and Labour Council that agreed the proposed minimum wage and labour-law amendments.
This made for a major rift, and on Tuesday both Saftu and Cosatu had separate May Day rallies planned in most major centres. These should again give some indication of the relative strengths and popularity of the competing federations. Cosatu, still the largest of the federations, had clearly pulled out all stops for its national rally in the Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) metro in Eastern Cape. Saftu staged its national rally in Free State capital Bloemfontein.
Headline speakers at the NMB rally were President Cyril Ramaphosa, SA Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, who is also transport minister, Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini and SA National Civics Organisation president Richard Mdakane — who is also an ANC MP. Saftu's national rally featured as speakers Saftu president Mac Chavalala in Bloemfontein and Vavi in Nelson Mandela Bay.
In the generally weakened domestic labour movement, Saftu now claims to have overtaken Fedusa as the second-largest federation.
Shows of strength aside, the emergence of Saftu, founded last year, has again opened up ideological schisms that existed within Cosatu at the time of South Africa's transition from apartheid. Then, Cosatu was in an anti-apartheid alliance with the ANC and it was argued that, once the ANC took over the government, the alliance should end, since the government was the largest employer in the land.
A motion to that effect, maintaining that unions should "not be in bed with bosses" was moved by the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) and was lost, but the tensions it highlighted remained. And the fact that several leading Cosatu figures have over the years since made seamless transitions from union positions into government — and in some cases have become billionaire business tycoons — exacerbated these tensions.
Although there were several other factors involved, these lay behind the departure from Cosatu of Numsa which, with more than 340,000 members, is today South Africa's largest union. The Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), with some 100,000 members, was the only one of seven Cosatu unions that initially supported Numsa, to also leave and join Saftu.
In the generally weakened domestic labour movement, Saftu now claims to have overtaken Fedusa as the second-largest federation. Beside Numsa and Fawu, the majority of the 22 affiliates of Saftu are breakaway fragments from Cosatu unions, while three were once affiliated to the now moribund Confederation of SA Workers' Unions.
However, exact numbers are difficult to come by, since Saftu has yet to file its audited figures with the registrar of trade unions — and many of the unions in the other federations are considerably behind with filing their figures. Websites are also of little help: most of the entries on the Cosatu website, for example, date back to May 2012 — and the site still lists Saftu-linked Fawu as an affiliate.
The Fedusa website does not list membership numbers, but affiliates of this politically independent federation are usually up to date with the registrar, and overall figures given are usually accurate. Nactu's chaotic congress last year resulted in the departure of both its long-serving president, Joseph Maqjhekeni, and its largest affiliate, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).
With Amcu having left, it is likely that the affiliates of Nactu account for less than 300,000 members. More fragmentation is on the cards.
In the Nactu case, party politics played a central role: Nactu general secretary, Narious Moloto is also the president of the Pan Africanist Congress, while the federation has always trumpeted its party political independence. With Amcu having left, it is likely that the affiliates of Nactu account for less than 300,000 members. More fragmentation is on the cards.
With Saftu having donned the militant mantle that once belonged almost exclusively to Cosatu, it seems likely that Saftu will continue to gain at the expense of the older federation, especially since Cosatu remains wedded to the ANC-led alliance.
Fedusa is also independent of party-political affiliation but, at a leadership level, has reacted with hostility to Saftu, so there seems little chance — certainly in the short term — of any rapprochement.
Terry Bell is a journalist, commentator and author specialising in political and economic analysis and labour matters.