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Betrayal of workers is historical

Union members affiliated to Cosatu march to Parliament in Cape Town as part of an effort to mobilise for pro-poor policies ahead of the Budget speech in February 2019. Historically in South Africa, union leaders were given leadership positions within liberation movements, such as the ANC. The downside of this partnership is that challenges faced by political parties would find expression in the trade unions, says the writer. Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA)

Union members affiliated to Cosatu march to Parliament in Cape Town as part of an effort to mobilise for pro-poor policies ahead of the Budget speech in February 2019. Historically in South Africa, union leaders were given leadership positions within liberation movements, such as the ANC. The downside of this partnership is that challenges faced by political parties would find expression in the trade unions, says the writer. Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 1, 2022

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Born out of a political compromise, South Africa’s post-1994 dispensation was always going to be difficult.

The faltering of liberation movements after the attainment of democracy has been a trend, even in the case of countries that attained their freedom through revolutionary means.

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The seeming collapse or emasculation of the labour movement in the country mirrors that experienced by former liberation movements. The reasons are not hard to find.

Owing to the peculiarity of South African history, African trade unionism has been inextricably linked to the liberation movements. Unions aligned to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) became part of the ANC Alliance, while The National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), South Africa's second-largest trade union federation, is known to have worked closely with the Black Consciousness Movement-associated parties.

The interests of the trade unions and liberation movements are mutually beneficial. The black working class, as part of the oppressed, has an interest in their own liberation.

Their class interests are invariably “refracted through the prism of national oppression”, as Nelson Mandela once observed. The symbiotic relationship between liberation movements and workers is best captured by the ANC in its 1997 Strategy and Tactics.

The party noted: “In class terms, apartheid ensured that blacks occupy the lowest rungs of the ladder of colonial capitalism: as the unemployed and landless rural masses; as unskilled and semi-skilled workers; as professionals squashed between the rock of poverty and the glass ceiling of job reservation … this gave birth to a collective of black workers whose class position and social existence placed it at the head of the struggle for freedom ... the working class stands to gain most from the success of transformation. Because of its organisation and role, and objectively because of its numbers and position in the production process, the working class is critical to this process.”

A union member at an anti-privatisation protest in Johannesburg, August 2001. The recruitment of union leaders to serve on the boards of the companies that exploit workers is a betrayal of the working class, says the writer. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

As part of the strategy to enlist the working class, liberation movements deployed some of their members to infiltrate unions belonging to the oppressed. This enabled them “to act as the political representative of both the organised and unorganised black and progressive workers”.

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At the same time, union leaders were given leadership positions within liberation movements. This was not difficult, as workers daily experienced the effects of national oppression.

Arising from the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing relationship, union leaders found themselves having to juggle revolutionary obligations with those that spoke specifically to the interests of workers. The downside of this partnership is that problems and challenges faced by political parties would find expression in the trade unions. It is no accident that factional battles in the ANC have also loomed large in the affairs of Cosatu.

This comes at a time when both poverty and inequality have deepened. The interests of the workers would play second fiddle. The defocusing of Cosatu from the interests of workers was no more evident than during the ANC January 8 Statement rally in Polokwane.

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During her opening address, the Cosatu’s president, Zingiswa Losi, indicated that she had criss-crossed the province as part of the build-up to the rally.

“Workers love the African National Congress (ANC),” Losi argued. “Equally, workers are angered by corruption, workers are angered by municipal workers who are not paid their salaries. Workers are angered by potholes that are never fixed, load shedding. Workers want us to listen and fix South Africa.”

She conveniently forgot to point out that these workers were in the same boat as ANC workers who had suffered the ignominy of not having been paid for months by honchos at the party’s headquarters.

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Cosatu’s schizophrenia is nothing new. Merely two months after the Polokwane jamboree, Cosatu was quick to lambaste Ramaphosa’s administration for betraying the workers.

The federation’s beef with Ramaphosa was triggered by the dismissal by the Constitutional Court of the application by 10 public sector unions to have the 2018 wage agreement enforced.

Four years earlier, Saftu was less sanguine in its description of Ramaphosa.

Commenting on his 100 days in office, the federation had this to say: “What the president is doing to workers of this country is the same as that undertaken by Margaret Thatcher in Britain. He will go down in the history as someone who was once a hero of the working class but who, once he crossed the class floor, launched the most savage attack on workers. After all, Margaret Thatcher was also a worker in the beginning.

“Not even FW de Klerk, the last apartheid ruler, would have attempted to emasculate the working class. At the time, it needed every instrument to fight low wages, worsening unemployment, poverty and inequalities.”

Perhaps going to the nub of the challenge that is facing both the ANC firebrands and the union leaders, Saftu continued: “There will be no fundamental change under a leader who is committed to the capitalist class. He will never accept that the system which has made him so spectacularly rich is the root cause of South Africa’s slide into the catastrophe of unemployment, poverty, inequality and corruption. He will never accept that this system is inherently corrupt and exploitative, based on the theft of the surplus value created by the workers’ labour and the pursuit of quick and big profits, and a system with no concern for the workers, consumers, communities and society as a whole.”

The betrayal of the working class was always in the making. It found its roots during the Struggle for liberation when the apartheid operatives successfully infiltrated liberation movements.

This strategy can be traced back to the days of American slavery when some slaves were turned into “house negros”. The infiltration of liberation movements has since been perfected. In the union movement, it found expression in the recruitment of union leaders to serve on the boards of the companies that exploit workers.

This was done under the pretext of advancing the project of black economic empowerment. The enlisted members were selected carefully. They were not enlisted to advance any revolution.

If anything, they were and still are are enlisted to frustrate it. The overriding factor is their preparedness to throw workers and former comrades under the bus.

It comes as no surprise that many of these union leaders have become nothing more than elevated security guards for white monopoly capital. It comes as no surprise that the challenges facing the ANC manifest themselves within the union movement.

Considering developments in the country, it could be argued that the warning by Mandela has come to pass. Delivering his political report and last speech as leader of the ANC in 1997, Mandela said: “Defenders of apartheid privilege continue to sustain a conviction that an opportunity will emerge in future, when they can activate this counter-insurgency machinery, to impose an agenda on South African society which would limit the possibilities of the democratic order to such an extent that it would not be able to create a society of equality, that would be rid of the legacy of apartheid.”

What Mandela could not have foreseen was that such counterinsurgency machinery and counterrevolution would be orchestrated within and by members of his movement.

At the moment, using the pretext of fighting corruption, the current leadership of the ANC alliance is preoccupied with purging anyone that white monopoly capital considers a threat.

* Seepe is the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Institutional Support, University of Zululand

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