Noisy unions failing to paint S.Africa red

Fri Sep 25, 2009 2:18pm GMT

By Ed Cropley

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - It often attracts the epithet "powerful", but on the evidence of this week's triennial conference, the only truly powerful thing about the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is its rhetoric.

For four days, leaders of the union body that played a key role in the anti-apartheid struggle berated their red-shirted comrades about the perils of bourgeois capitalism and the need to "build working class power in all sites of power".

Yet its stamp on policy is more noticeable by its absence, even though COSATU sees new president Jacob Zuma as "its man", having backed him in a 2007 internal putsch against the avowedly pro-business Thabo Mbeki as head of the ruling ANC.

With an election not due again until 2014, analysts say the ANC is only likely to pay lip-service to its junior partner in an alliance that also includes the Communist Party, another anti-apartheid actor with an identity crisis 15 years after the end of white minority rule.

"The ANC are 'open to the debate' -- that is often the terminology used -- but that doesn't necessarily translate into the policy shifts that are demanded by the unions," said Mike Davies of political risk group Eurasia.

"None of it has really moved the agenda."

South Africa's steady economic evolution since apartheid from mining and manufacturing to business services -- finance and real estate now account for 20 percent of GDP, the biggest slice -- also points to waning long-term union influence.

THE SHIRT MAY BE RED, BUT...   Continued...

<p>Members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) march through the streets of Cape Town in protest against high food, fuel and electricity prices August 6, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings</p>
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