Johannesburg — South Africa's biggest black trade union federation and the government appear headed for a full-force confrontation. That is because the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) increasingly is taking an overtly political stand against the government's segregationist policies, known as apartheid.
In its boldest move yet, Cosatu has called for three days of peaceful protest, starting today. The action is to demonstrate against new labor laws that could curb Cosatu's clout and against Pretoria's effective banning of 17 anti-apartheid groups.
Although the federation did not specify what form the protest should take, it could result in a widespread work stay-away - illegal under South Africa's two-year-old state of emergency. The call also could violate Pretoria's restriction that confines Cosatu solely to labor-related issues. The government and employers have warned that workers who participate in the strike could face dismissals.
While it is uncertain whether Pretoria will take punitive measures against Cosatu, lawyers believe the protest call gives it more grounds for cracking down on the federation's leaders. Some say the clampdown could come soon, judging by unpublished court documents in which the government links Cosatu with the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) and by a recent raid on federation offices where police confiscated sensitive documents.
Political analysts say such a move would be a crippling blow to black antigovernment resistance. Without an executive structure, analysts maintain, Cosatu would lose its political efficacy - even though its union affiliates could carry on with labor activities. And, with most black dissident groups already gagged, they say, the prospects for peaceful political expression would look pretty bleak.
``There are three pillars to the anti-apartheid internal movement,'' says Mark Swilling, a University of Witwatersrand political scientist. ``The church, community organizations, and unions. If the government takes out Cosatu's leadership, that would make it two down, one to go.''
To be sure, some analysts think Pretoria could leave Cosatu leaders alone, especially if the protest flops. They say that between the ban on Cosatu's political activities and the pending labor legislation, Cosatu's back has been broken.
The federation, with about 700,000 members, already was in hot water with Pretoria and employers because of its militant demands in the work place. That is a big reason for the proposed labor laws, which employers say will curtail illegal job actions and violence.
But Cosatu contends the legislation will severely hamper its right to strike, jeopardize job security, and allow employers to bankrupt unions through litigation.
So Cosatu leaders called a closed meeting of its unions three weeks ago to discuss ways of fighting the labor bill, as well as the political restrictions. (Pretoria said it issued the orders because the anti-apartheid groups fostered civil disobedience and rebellion.)
A federation official says the mood at the congress was combative: Suggestions it take a less confrontational approach were shot down, and there were strident demands for the kinds of demonstrations that ripped black areas apart from 1984-86.
Thus the protest call, which one dissenting Cosatu official characterized as ``suicidal,'' given the government's repressive security measures. Tom Lodge, political studies professor at the University of Witwatersrand, thinks Cosatu did not have a choice. ``It's difficult to see what else it could do,'' he says. ``It is the last and best-organized section of black opposition and feels a moral obligation to play a leading role.''
(The protest was seconded by a broadly based group of South African clergymen at an emergency conference last week which called for increased non-violent resistance.)
All this comes at a time when many believe Pretoria is building a legal case against the federation's leaders. In court documents, the government alleges Cosatu is acting in conjunction with revolutionary groups that use violent means to achieve their aims.
A Cosatu lawyer, while denying the allegations, points out that they fit the definition of treason.
``How long can they let Cosatu leaders stay free with that kind of definition,'' he asks. ``That's like saying someone is guilty of murder and then not charging him.'' (A spokesman for the Ministry of Law and Order dismisses the idea. ``We don't want to be part and parcel of their [Cosatu's] propaganda.'')
Still, many here believe it is just a matter of time before Cosatu too gets the ax - and that the protest call may have accelerated the process.
``The protest will bring the confrontation with the state nearer,'' says Mr. Lodge. ``If Cosatu shows it still has mobilizing muscle, there may be renewed urgency to cut off its leadership in the same way as the anti-apartheid groups. Cosatu is treading dangerously close.''
S. Africa's Cosatu Johannesburg
Cosatu, the largest of South Africa's black union federation, was founded in 1985. It was the result of several years of unity talks among various black unions, which were made legal in 1979.
The federation is made up of 14 affiliates. Although not a member of the now-banned United Democratic Front, the largest of the anti-apartheid groups, Cosatu sees itself in the vanguard of the black political struggle. It is negotiating with the second largest labor federation about a possible merger.