COSATU looks to improve working conditions


MIXOLISI NKOSI was in Perth to attend the Indian Ocean Trade Union Conference. A member of the Central Executive Committee of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Nkosi is the assistant general secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers Union. He was interviewed for Green Left Weekly by STEPHEN ROBSON.

How had the strike wave earlier in the year affected COSATU, I asked?

Nkosi thought that it shattered the illusion that there was going to be a cosy relationship with the new government. People realised that there was going to be no "romantic understanding of the post-April 27 era with everything good and nice.

"The strikes were also good in the sense that they exposed the working conditions of many workers to people throughout the country."

Also exposed was police brutality. The strikes at the Pick 'n' Pay supermarkets were an example of this, where the police directly interfered in the labour dispute.

COSATU had taken a conscious decision before the April 27 elections to free "some of its cadres to be part of the parliament, the government of national unity".

Behind this was the thinking that there needs to be "a fair representation of labour-conscious comrades in parliament and particularly in the ANC as part of the alliance".

A number of former COSATU leaders are now in parliament such as Jay Naidoo, former general secretary; and first vice-president Chris Dlamini.

Nkosi felt that this step would be overwhelmingly positive. These former trade union leaders are now "serving broad national interests, and it means they are going to use the skills gained from the trade union movement in order to hasten the process of transition."

Because of the collective leadership in COSATU, there had been a smooth transition in the leadership of the union federation.

Nkosi explained that COSATU has developed an organising strategy that will actively reach out to the unorganised work force. The strategy also includes reorganising its own internal structures.

Large sections of farm workers are ununionised, working under very bad conditions. Most of the farms are owned by "very conservative white farmers who don't have any due regard for human life and have denied farm workers and labourers the basic rights to be unionised".

Nkosi explained that it was likely that through this organising work, another union would be established, COSATU's 16th affiliate.

Nkosi cited maintaining independence from the government as a key task facing the union movement today. This would be combined with a "return to basics".

"It's important to go back to the old traditions of worker control, of democracy."

During the past few years of struggle against the apartheid government and during the negotiations, rank-and-file input into the union movement was neglected. For that reason, Nkosi thought it very important to return to the "whole tried and tested traditions of getting mandates, of getting feedback, ensuring that workers are in control and not officials".

He argued that the labour movement needed to be prominent in its views on the economy, "developing our own capacity within society".

It was also important to consolidate the tripartite alliance between COSATU, the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. COSATU needed to see itself "very much as a catalyst in the unification, the close cooperation of the left forces".

Internationally, organisations were looking to developments in South Africa for a lead. "People are looking for a home in South Africa now some of the traditional homes have died."

Despite the tasks and responsibilities in South Africa, COSATU "needs to rise to the occasion" to develop international solidarity.

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