On Sunday, 4 December 2005, COSATU celebrated its 20th anniversary. These have been two decades of heroic collective struggle against apartheid, for workers’ rights, and for the reconstruction of our country after the 1994 democratic breakthrough.  In paying tribute to COSATU, last month’s Augmented Central Committee of the SACP said:

“For the SACP this is also a moment of celebrating two decades of a rich, comradely alliance between our two formations. Together we have taken up the battle against an economic system based on exploitation of the majority and private profits for the few. Together we have opposed privatization. Together we have sought to highlight the job-loss blood-bath that has engulfed our country over the past decade. Together we have embarked on struggles for gender transformation. Together we have endeavoured to find programmes to address joblessness, casualisation and underdevelopment. Together we have committed ourselves to making the second decade a decade of workers and the poor.

“We wish to state categorically as the SACP today, that we are very proud of having an ally like COSATU. COSATU is a highly dependable ally that has proved its trustworthiness and credibility through taking up concrete struggles of the workers and the broader struggles to deepen our national democratic revolution.”

We believe that the celebration of COSATU’s twentieth anniversary should be used as an occasion to reflect upon and evaluate the past, analyse current developments, and focus on the strategic and programmatic challenges lying ahead.

Unions and Politics

COSATU was born in the midst of popular upsurge and also heightened apartheid repression. In the midst of a state of emergency, PW Botha’s regime unleashed a strategy of counter-revolutionary violence in townships and rural areas throughout the country, but with the epicentre in KwaZulu-Natal, where the IFP acted as its storm-troopers.

The popular and trade union struggles of the period had been significantly boosted by the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. The period within which COSATU was founded was to make a lasting impact on the direction of the national democratic revolution. It is a period whose outcome produced what we have sometimes referred to as the ‘reciprocal siege’ of the late 1980s, where the apartheid regime was unable to continue its rule, but the liberation movement not strong enough yet to seize power.

Also impacting upon the opening up of talks for a negotiated settlement in the early 1990s, was the fact that South African capitalism was in a deep and continuing crisis, a case where apartheid rule (having originally rescued South African capitalism from its post-war crisis in the late-1940s) was now fast becoming a destabilising ‘fetter’ on the consolidation of capitalism in South Africa.

Naturally during such periods there are intense debates within national liberation movements and their constituent components. This was the case in our country. The progressive trade union movement in South Africa was itself a hotbed of debate about the character and role of organised worker formations in South Africa’s unfolding national liberation struggle.

One of the key debates at the time of the founding of COSATU concerned the relationship between unions and politics in general. This took the specific form of a debate about the relationship between COSATU and the national liberation movement. There were two fairly well entrenched positions inside COSATU. The one position was that COSATU should distance itself from the national liberation movement and focus its energies on building its own structures, with the union movement being seen as the embryo of a workers’ party that would lead the struggle for socialism. This position was probably the hegemonic (if contested) position within COSATU’s predecessor, FOSATU, and was referred to in our movement as "workerism."

The other position was that of our movement ‘the Congress tradition’, which argued that a progressive trade union, whilst rooted on the factory floor, cannot stand aside in the broader political struggles for liberation, as such liberation was in the deepest interest of the workers themselves. This position was eloquently argued in the still relevant Umsebenzi pamphlet by Joe Slovo, “The working class and the national democratic revolution”.

Within the broad Congress movement and in sections of the UDF, for instance, there was also a ‘populist’ strand which failed to understand the leading role of workers and the importance of the trade union movement within the national democratic struggle itself. This ‘populist’ current lacked a class analysis of the national democratic revolution.

The formation of COSATU and its ideological and political orientation can be seen as the consolidation of a renewed hegemonic position within the mainstream of the progressive trade union movement in our country. While workerist currents remained, the launching of COSATU marked an organisational victory of the ‘congress’ perspectives. The underground SACP structures can claim some credit for this important shift.

Contrary to positions now being articulated by the newly formed trade union federation (announced last week), politics have always been a key feature in the evolution of South Africa’s trade union movement. The racial fragmentation of South Africa’s working class is a product of a long struggle by the colonial and later apartheid ruling bloc to co-opt the white trade union movement as one of its key components.

As our discussion document for the November 2005 augmented Central Committee argues, underlying these debates was the decades-long issue of the relationship between the national and class question in our revolution:

“(The SACP’s) critics to the ‘left’ and right have always criticised the SACP for having either prioritised the national question at the expense of the class struggle, or the class struggle over the national… We have of course always (correctly) insisted that the question in South Africa is not about which struggle is primary, the ‘class’ or the ‘national’. It is a question of properly grasping the relationship between the two”.

It is this perspective that has also come to be dominant within COSATU. Of course, COSATU represents the best of the ‘workerist’ tradition in so far as emphasis on worker leadership is concerned, combined with the ideological perspectives of the Congress movement.

Trade Unions after Independence

However, the relationship between unions and the national liberation movements, of which they are a part, is always fraught with its own contradictions, as we have pointed out in earlier editions of this publication. National liberation movements, especially when in power, have a tendency to want to turn progressive trade unions into conveyor belts of state policies. Since trade unions tend to be among the best organised sectors of post-independence societies, they often become a platform to build opposition to unpopular policies of the liberation movements in government.

The struggles of COSATU have taught us some important lessons in this regard. Firstly, there is no contradiction between being an independent trade union federation and at the same time part of an alliance, including a political alliance. Resulting tensions are not necessarily destructive, they can become the catalyser for ongoing revolutionary transformation. It is the independence of COSATU that has strengthened the Alliance. And it is the alliance that has reinforced this independence as a necessary component of a strong alliance.

As Slovo said in 1988, it is precisely in periods that require alliances that the working class and its formations must preciously guard their independence. The converse is also true and it is a point Lenin frequently asserted – it is only an independent working class, with a clear programme, that can enter into principled alliances without sacrificing its goals.

In practice, it has been a daunting task to strike this balance. The serious tensions that emerged within our own alliance – especially with the adoption of GEAR in 1996 and the privatisation thrust of government post-1999, are a reflection of some of the difficulties in trying to strike this balance.

Working Class Independence and Alliances

The ANC Briefing Notes of 2002, that sought to castigate COSATU (and the SACP) as ‘ultra-leftist’ was an expression of the irritation of a liberation movement in power with an ally that has steadfastly refused to surrender its independence and ‘prerogative’ to disagree with ANC or government policies if it does not agree with them. The tensions around privatisation could easily have led a federation like COSATU to seek to walk away from the alliance, as it was constantly goaded to do by both its ‘left’ and right detractors. It stuck to the Alliance, but retained its own independence.

Of course our detractors daily point out that being independent but part of the Alliance is not sustainable. COSATU has correctly argued that, while this strategy has its tensions, it is mass power and the organisational strength of the working class that will ensure that the strategy has durability and succeeds.

COSATU’s maturity in this regard has also irritated the ‘left’ congregated parasitically around the so-called ‘new social movements’. It is a ‘left’ that is ironically sustained by donor funding with no independent sources of funding for itself, and sometimes, with a few exceptions, opportunistically exploiting alliance and government shortcomings in a permanently oppositionist mode, with very little strategy or capacity to engage the democratic government outside of this mode. It is for these reasons that this ‘left’, with a few notable exceptions, remains isolated and not a factor in the major class struggles of the day.


Within the context of the above, a relationship that is much less commented upon is the twenty-year alliance between COSATU and the SACP. Both our ‘left’ and media detractors seem to be simultaneously irritated and envious of this relationship, such that they either dismiss its importance or prefer to say very little about it. The media never really analyses this relationship, only mentioning it in passing when referring to the ANC alliance in general. Our ‘left’ detractors are dismissive of this relationship mainly because they see the SACP as a major stumbling block towards their idea of a workers’ party. COSATU has consistently rejected these detractors, correctly arguing that South Africa already has a workers’ party in South Africa — the SACP.

Other ‘rightist’ detractors to this growing and deepening relationship between COSATU and the SACP, also tend to dismiss it as showing the extent to which the SACP is ‘tailing’ behind COSATU. It is a relationship that is either dismissed or hardly referred to precisely because it is this relationship that has been at the heart of leading major working class struggles in post-1994 South Africa. It is the core of the socialist left and the centre of gravity of left politics in South Africa. This reality has not been decreed but is a direct result of our strategy — remaining in the ANC and the alliance, whilst simultaneously driving independent working class programmes and campaigns. It is this strategy, and its successes, that both our ‘left’ and ‘right’ detractors do not wish to understand.

It is a relationship that has grown precisely because both our formations understand the distinctiveness and interrelated nature of COSATU and the SACP, within the context of the Alliance. COSATU understands and respects the SACP as a formation that has to be strengthened as the vanguard party of South Africa’s working class. It has not only said so in its numerous congress resolutions, but in practice through concrete joint campaigns and activities. The SACP on the other hand respects the independence of COSATU, yet at the same understands that COSATU membership is the jost immediate constituency of the SACP as a party of the working class. It is for this reason that we have both run independent and joint campaigns to advance the interests of the working class in our country.

Some of the achievements of the relationship between COSATU and the SACP include joint struggles against privatisation and the GEAR macro-economic policy. We have also been involved in numerous joint ideological programmes, including left political education programmes, with scores of joint political schools; the establishment of socialist forums; and recently the joint founding and establishment of the Chris Hani Institute. These have become the hub of Marxist-Leninist debates in the country, and through these have produced thousands of COSATU and SACP organic intellectuals and cadres grounded in working class ideology.

The SACP banks, co-operatives and the land and agrarian campaigns have been strongly supported by COSATU through concrete struggles on the ground. The SACP has been an important pillar of support to COSATU’s jobs and poverty campaign.

Contrary to our detractors, we are not an alliance within the alliance, nor are we in opposition to the ANC. Our relationship is premised on strengthening the alliance and influencing the ANC as a movement biased towards the working class. We do not do this through conspiracy but through constructive engagement within our alliance as well as through concrete struggles.

Fundamentally our relationship with COSATU is based on our joint commitment to struggling for a socialist South Africa, as the only form of society that will address all the major problems facing our country. In this we can say that the perspectives of the two formations are guided by what was articulated in the political report adopted by the Central Committee of the SACP nearly thirty years ago, in 1977:

“Our claim that we are a vanguard party of the working class is in no way diminished by our close association with the national liberation front headed by the ANC…. A Communist Party does not earn the honoured title of vanguard merely by proclaiming it. For example, a working class party does not exercise its vanguard role in relation to the trade unions by capturing them or transforming them into wings of the Party, but rather by proving that the Party and its individual members are the jost ideologically clear and the jost devoted and loyal participants in the workers’ cause”

“It is clear that the dominant force in this alliance must be the working class and it is their supremacy in the new state that will emerge after victory, which will prevent our revolution from grinding to a halt at the point of a formal political take-over.”

This is the nub of the challenges facing the working class as a whole as we celebrate 20 glorious years of COSATU. It is also for these reasons that in our bilateral with COSATU early this year, we committed ourselves to escalate working class mobilisation to ensure that the second decade of freedom becomes the decade of workers and the poor. We are convinced that these and other related themes as outlined above will continue to dominate our revolution, the politics of the working class and the struggles of the trade union movement during the second decade of freedom.