NEWS & ANALYSIS

COSATU condemns Moeletsi Mbeki's comments on unions

Union federation says commentator's vision has been warped by personal dislike of Zuma and COSATU

It is with great sadness that the Congress of South African Trade Unions is obliged to condemn the remarks about trade unions and their leadership made by Moeletsi Mbeki in his book, ‘Architects of Poverty'.

COSATU has had a very long friendship with Moeletsi Mbeki and appreciates his contribution to the struggles of the workers over many years. The comments in his book, however are factually incorrect and profoundly insulting towards trade union leaders who have devoted their lives to serving the workers' movement

The basis of his argument against COSATU is that its leaders are ignorant and uneducated. He says that "they have no leadership. Cosatu lost their leaders in 1994. The unions are left with leaders who have no education, no knowledge, no expertise. That's why the poor are being ripped off... they don't understand the political economy of SA".

He goes on to claim that  "they think they can ingratiate themselves with the politicians of the ANC, so in the past four years they have been crawling to Jacob Zuma, thinking that they will use him. But Zuma has ignored them once he got into power. He ignored them and privatised Vodacom."

The reality is that, despite the fact that the majority of workers were deliberately denied educational opportunities under apartheid, the trade union movement has itself been a great university, in which workers struggled to understand the world and how it can be changed for the better. Many thousands emerged eventually as fine worker intellectuals. They should never be condemned for failing to obtain academic qualifications at universities from which they were excluded. 

This is borne out by the fact that so many trade unionists were able to move into important positions in government and industry after 1994. But the unions continued to produce leaders with insight and understanding from then up to today. Many union officials and leaders are still studying and qualifying, often in difficult circumstances, at the very highest academic level.

Mbeki's comments about the federation's relationship with Jacob Zuma are also completely wide of the mark. While most other commentators go to the opposite extreme and, incorrectly, talk about COSATU dictating to the government, Mbeki makes the preposterous claim that the President has completely ignored the unions. Both these extreme views are false.

COSATU has exercised great influence on the direction of ANC's Polokwane policies and is now participating in helping the government and the ANC to implement those. But neither side is dictating to the other. It is a healthy, democratic collaboration in which powerful but independent bodies are working together to transform our society, create jobs and eliminate poverty.

That is democracy in action and Mbeki ought to be applauding the new atmosphere of transparency and open debate which is thriving at the present time.

COSATU regret that Mbeki's obvious personal dislike of President Zuma and his allies, including COSATU, has warped his vision. He stopped being independent when he took a personal view when his brother was dismissed as President, and can no longer be treated as an independent political commentator but someone with a personal grudge.

Statement issued by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, June 29 2009

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