by Cde Els Themba writing in Umsebenzi Online

“…man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind”
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’, 1848

Modern life, which is capitalist life, confronts us time and again with fundamental problems, and makes us face “with sober senses”, matters that we would prefer think that we have dealt with, long ago.

One of these is the problem of unity, and trade union unity in particular. When this unity is threatened, we must face the problem and deal with it, “with sober senses” indeed, but also with deliberate speed.

COSATU has always stood for one industry, one union, one country, one federation, and it has been COSATU, since 1985, that has shaped what is now called, in our mass media, “the South African labour relations system”.

It has been, in the first place, COSATU’s organisational discipline, and not the law, that has prevented self-destructive splitting and poaching from destroying our trade union movement in South Africa.

COSATU has also helped to shape the law. Consequently, all workers have a right to form trade unions, under South Africa’s constitution. This is a right that we have fought for, and we still support it.

But the same law that guarantees the right to form unions, by that same fact gives workers a right to split unions. In a South African trade union, an angry minority can walk away from discipline and the majority, and form its own, smaller, rejectionist union. Or, it can join another union.

Unions can poach members from other unions. The law does not stop them from doing so. On the contrary, the law sustains poaching as a “human right”.

The “right” to split does not exist in the national, electoral democracy. There, the losers must submit to the winners. Walking away would mean leaving the country. It is not a practical option.

But trade unions and other mass democratic organisations have to rely on their own free will to stay together, based on the belief that an injury to one is an injury to all, and that if we cannot stay organised and together, we will starve.

We have once again come face to face with this “real condition of life”. We must maintain “sober senses” and hold fast to what has kept us safe for so many years: unity.

As Cde Thulas Nxesi said at the SADTU NGC, “We forget this simple truth at our peril”.

The threat of poaching by General Unions, both inside and outside of the COSATU federation, is real.

In the North West there is AMCU, and there are others like AMCU. One of them has started in the East Rand, based on undisciplined elements who were formerly in SADTU’s ranks. This is a bitter thing to face, but we must face it, and out-organise it. We must out-organise the splitters!

This behaviour is a menace to trade unionism in South Africa. If we are not able to contain it, and to turn it around, then the possibility exists for endless fragmentation of trade unions, and so for a successful divide-and-rule regime from the employers’ point of view.


Discipline is the mother of victory. We always used to say so, and it is still true.

There are processes, laid down in our disciplinary codes, and the constitutions that govern them. These processes will only be upheld by ourselves. We cannot be undermining our own constitutional due process with special pleading, as if some individuals are naturally better than others, or are exempt for whatever spurious reasons may be given.

The current processes that are going on, involving the General Secretary of COSATU, and the President of SADTU, are initiated by a majority in both cases. That is, a majority of the COSATU CEC and of the SADTU NEC, respectively, who have that constitutional power. They are not to be called “factional” processes.

Nor can they be called frivolous actions. These are sober, serious processes that have to be worked through. There will be a life for everyone after they are completed. So long as they are respected, our constitutions guarantee that. We are all anxious for these comrades. Nobody has a monopoly on concern.

But undermining policy at will, inconsistency, arbitrary calls for reinstatement, and calls for the over-ruling of proper processes: Any of these things can destroy our organisations, up to and including the federation itself.

Trade unionists know that they stand or fall by the proper conduct of their business. No one can be above, or beyond the law. None of us can be a law unto himself, or herself. We must await, with discipline, the outcomes of the processes that are under way.


Along with all of this, we are obliged to face, once again with “sober senses”, the unwelcome and almost unbelievable re-emergence of tribalism in South Africa; almost unbelievable, because only last year we were celebrating the centenary of the ANC.

The ANC was founded in 1912, partly, and explicitly, to get rid of this “demon” as Pixley Ka-Isaka Seme called it when he wrote, in October 1911, while preparing for the ANC launch, which was to come just over two months later:

“The demon of racialism, the aberrations of the Xhosa-Fingo feud, the animosity that exists between the Zulus and the Tsongas, between the Basuthos and every other Native must be buried and forgotten; it has shed among us sufficient blood! We are one people.

Look well on your history. See the inheritance passed from the Zulu Chief Luthuli, our first Nobel Peace Prize winner (in the days when that prize meant something) to the Xhosa O R Tambo who preserved the inheritance so well, and who, as a Christian, maintained unity in action with Moses Kotane, and all the communists.

This is our proud legacy: Unity in action. Not tribalism.

If you think that your national group owns our revolution, then you are mistaken.

Whatever we have, it was got by unity in action. That is, by the very opposite of tribal supremacy. And this continues to be the case.

See the world today. Look at what divide-and-rule has done to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, to mention only a few. Terrible slaughter continues to happen in all of those countries, based on sectarianism of race, and of religion, instigated, aided and abetted by the Imperialists.

Those are the same Imperialists who oppressed us in the past, and can do so again, if we let them divide us.

Look hard at what an orgy of tribalism and tribal slaughter did to Kenya, in the last previous national elections before the last national elections. See how the problem lingers on, and continues to cause problems for the whole continent.

South Africa, which has provided the African Union with its leader in the person of Cde Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is a bearer of the non-tribal, non-racial principle for the whole continent. This is how much is at stake.

Yet there are comrades who would identify with Zwelinzima Vavi and Thobile Ntola as Xhosas, and fight for them on that basis.

Just think for a moment about what it means for these comrades. Because if you think that the identity of their leadership is tribal, then you are deeply insulting Cdes Vavi and Ntola. They never said that they were General Secretary or President for the Xhosas.

Both of them are still in office, by the way. Neither can be reinstated, because neither has been removed.

Did Cdes Vavi and Ntola say to Xhosas, that because of them, it was “your turn to eat”? No, they did not say any such thing, and they will never say such things. O R Tambo never said such things, Chief Luthuli never said such things and Moses Kotane certainly never said such things.

Everything in this country depends upon not going back to the separation that was the historical problem that we fought against in the liberation struggle.

Divide-and-rule is still our biggest danger.

Let us maintain our unity, maintain our organisations, and the principles upon which they are founded; complete all due processes according to our constitutions and our laws; and keep a solid wall between ourselves and tribalism, comrades.


1. Els Themba is Chairperson of South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) in North West Province. This is an edited version of the address Cde Els made to SADTU North West Provincial General Council, one week prior to SADTU’s National General Council (NGC) that took place in Kempton Park from 25th to 17th October 2013.

Among other things, the NGC duly declared: “SADTU must condemn all signs of tribalism that seems to accompany those in COSATU who have employed magnanimous enthusiasm to protect the General Secretary of COSATU.

“SADTU as a matter of urgency condemns all signs of tribalism that undermine unity and leaders in the organisation”


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