inside labour

Time of article published Mar 16, 2012

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History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” wrote American author Maya Angelou. A fellow writer, James Baldwin, noted: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

These were both reminders that we need to know our history in order to understand perhaps where we are today and how we came to be where we are; that we need to understand reality and to face it in order to progress. Such advice seems particularly pertinent in these, at first sight, very confusing times.

It also seems essential because of some of the mythology and distortions of history that are being peddled, either knowingly or through ignorance. References to what is happening being part of an ill or undefined “national democratic revolution” or “developmental state” also help to obscure rather than to clarify anything.

For many in the labour movement and the wider public, the fact that Zwelinzima Vavi, as general secretary of Cosatu, was wooed by the ANC to join its national executive at the very time he was leading a mass protest against government policies, was very confusing. Even more confusing was the presence of Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande on a protest march called by Cosatu against policies he, as a cabinet member, had approved.

At the same time there were also quite widespread rumours – publicly denied, but privately confirmed – that a government position had been suggested to a leading figure in the politically non-aligned Federation of Unions of SA. This federation and other, independent unions have frequently been criticised from within Cosatu as “social democratic” or even “liberal”.

Nzimande, in his other executive role as general secretary of the SACP, has been particularly scathing about “liberals”.

Writing in the SACP online journal, he claimed: “Liberalism in general and its different South African shades has been consistent on one and only one thing, political hypocrisy.”

He equated “liberals” with the opposition DA that has its roots in the Progressive Federal Party that supported a qualified franchise for black people. But there was a Liberal Party, formed in the same year, 1953, that the SACP was launched as an underground formation. It had a non-racist constitution, supported votes for all and, like the Communist Party of South Africa had done in 1950, was forced to dissolve itself in 1968 when the apartheid state introduced laws that made it impossible to continue functioning.

In 1963, a minority of Liberal Party members, together with members of the tiny Socialist League, a grouping of “anti-Stalinist” communists, established the African Resistance Movement that conducted a sabotage campaign against the government. An African Resistance Movement member, John Harris, was hanged and his name was one of the early ones inscribed on the Wall of Remembrance in Freedom Park in Pretoria.

Given this background, it might seem obvious that these liberals would be natural allies of the ANC.

In fact, a number are supporters and members of the governing party while some support the now non-racist DA.

The confusion arises because the posturing, comments, protests and criticisms are all part of a series of skirmishes in which the desire for power and patronage competes with, and often overwhelms, principle; where individual agendas are in play against group ideologies – and all form part of the underlying struggle for and against trade unions and their ability to act independently.

Currently, the SACP, which counts among its members most of the Cosatu executive, is making a concerted play to gain greater influence and a larger membership. It also professes to be not “a” workers’ party, but “the” workers’ party; such a position brooks no challenge and results in calls by SACP members for all union officials to be “party members”. This would shut out those labelled social democrats or liberals.

But just as the SACP is trying to gain greater influence within the labour movement, so too is the ANC, to which SACP members also belong. As has been noted here in the past, trade unions, because of their size and the positions of their members at the points of production, distribution and exchange, are potentially enormously powerful, whether as a voting bloc or pressure group. So they are obvious targets.

This is as it has always been although, in the first place, neither governments nor bosses saw any need for independently organised labour. They attempted to eliminate such organisations by brute force, threats and accompanying legislation.

But workers fought back and the nature of modern industry made their organisations essential in parliamentary democracies, both to protect wage earners and to provide a structure with which governments and employers could negotiate. Violent confrontation gave way to more subtle manoeuvring as employers, governments and political parties attempted to influence, even control, trade unions.

This is the war that is ongoing against a labour history littered with images of the assassin’s bullet, the hangman’s noose, prisons, transportation and torture. For many in the global community, these are grim reminders of past times; in some countries, they remain a reality. In Iran, for example, former teachers’ union activist and university lecturer Abdolreza Ghanbari is about to face the hangman, having been found guilty by that theocratic tyranny of “enmity towards God”.

Then there are the trade unionists who are assassinated and who regularly “disappear” in countries such as Colombia or North Korea where the bosses and the state continue to frustrate the emergence of independent wage-earner organisations.

Closer to home, in Zimbabwe and, especially, Swaziland, where the embattled labour movement last week formed a single federation, governments have adopted an aggressive and often violent approach to unions.

In South Africa, the battles between the “social partners” and competing political parties is much more subtle. But the system is far from stable, and a situation exists that might best be described as armed truce punctuated by frequent breaches. And the underlying war continues.

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