Reactions to the booing of President Cyril Ramaphosa at this year’s May 1 Cosatu rally came thick and fast. This is to be expected, given Ramaphosa’s position as president of the ANC and head of state.
Not surprising also is that there were bound to be differences in how this development would be interpreted. Ramaphosa’s usual drum majorettes that have fashioned themselves in the form of structures such as the ANC Veterans League and media honchos rushed to blame union leaders.
They argued that union leaders miscalculated by inviting Ramaphosa in the middle of a strike by mineworkers. Fair point there. But the issues are probably deeper than that. Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi corrected this view and pointed out that the sense of grievance is not limited to unions in the private sector.
Public sector unions also felt betrayed by the government’s decision to renege on the wage agreement of 2018. In this instance, the Constitutional Court ruled in the government’s favour. Ramaphosa’s administration may have won the legal dispute, but it evidently lost the political battle.
For unions, Ramaphosa’s administration has set a bad precedent. Why should the bosses of private companies behave differently when a government led by their ally is prepared to show workers its middle finger?
This reading of events builds on the view that the administration is not doing enough to advance black businesses and black professionals. In 2019, Bonang Mohale, then chief executive of Business Leadership SA, reportedly argued that the ANC government has “killed” more black businesses and black professionals than the National Party did during its 46-year rule.
Since taking over, Ramaphosa’s administration has arguably replaced many black professionals with those of either European or Indian descent. This could be a mere coincidence. However, in politics optics do matter. The political significance of the May 1 booing was not lost on Ramaphosa.
As part of damage control, Ramaphosa wasted no time expressing himself using his weekly newsletter. He opined: “While the main grievance appeared to be about wage negotiations at nearby mines, the workers’ actions demonstrated a broader level of discontent.
It reflects a weakening of trust in their union and federation as well as political leadership, including public institutions. “These workers wanted to be heard. They wanted their union leaders and government to appreciate their concerns and understand the challenges they face. In raising their voices, these workers were upholding a tradition of militancy that has been part of the labour movement in this country for decades.”
The statement is deceptively crafted to placate the workers while the programme for their emasculation continues. Unlike what his drum majorettes seem to suggest, the real issues are also not lost on Ramaphosa. Betrayal is, after all, never about ignorance.
The anti-Ramaphosa groupings read the public humiliation as a defining moment. The booing symbolised workers’ rejection of Ramaphosa. He was subjected to the same treatment by ordinary masses during the recent municipal election campaign. Opposition parties saw this as the continuing rejection of the ANC.
The spectre of the ANC losing the 2024 national elections has never been so real. The challenge facing the ANC is whether it is willing to risk loss of power by fielding a leader who has been resoundingly rejected by the masses and the working class.
Whatever reading one attaches to the Rustenburg saga, there is no mistaking the fact that Ramaphosa’s penchant to hide behind state capture and the Guptas have worn thin.
Evidently, the so-called nine wasted years mantra, which has since found a new disciple in Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, has lost its appeal. It has become evident that since taking over as president of the ANC and the republic, Ramaphosa has had nothing to offer.
The seeming betrayal of the working class is becoming a recurring jeremiad of the Ramaphosa administration. Writing in his blog, under the title “Betrayal – amid continuing hope” (May 25, 2021), labour expert Terry Bell did not mince his words: “The children of the working poor have been betrayed again. Last week it became clear that almost all the promised Covid-19 emergency payments to tens of thousands of workers who care for an estimated 2.5 million children under the age of 6 had not been paid … President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged R1.3 billion in such payments … it now appears that R712million of this money was paid back to the Treasury.”
While failing the working class, Ramaphosa has proved to be a godsend for big capital. His administration has embarked, with little protest from the usual quarters, on selling the state-owned enterprises to his benefactors in the private sector.
The ANC has also never been more divided. Cosatu has since been reduced to a poor shadow of itself. As Cosatu meets at its forthcoming congress in September, it will find itself having much on its plate. This includes asking itself whether the current tripartite partnership with the ANC serves the purpose for which it was intended.
The sense of betrayal by unions is arguable of their own making. On the one hand, they have placed too much faith in the political leadership of the ANC. At the same time, union leaders have allowed themselves to de-focus as they seek to enter narrow party politics. Doing so has come at a price.
Labour-related issues relating to wages and conditions of service have been placed on the back burner. The forthcoming congress presents an opportunity to elect a leadership that is in tune with the interests of the workers. And leadership that would remain true to fulfilling their historic mandate of putting workers first.
This is a responsibility that it cannot outsource to the political leadership of its alliance partner. It is important for unions not to have unrealistic expectations. The governing party’s political mandate is broader and extensive. It cannot be limited to advancing only the interests of organised labour.
Given a sense of grievance, strident calls for Cosatu to move out of the ANC tripartite alliance are understandable. Tempting as the calls maybe, they need to be factored against letting go of advantages that go with being part of the alliance.
Being outside the alliance may lead the unions to a political wilderness and government into the welcoming hands of big capital. The answer probably lies in recalibrating the relationship among alliance partners. As matters stand, the relationship between Cosatu and the ANC is exploitative with little in return for Cosatu members.
Second, the congress must address itself to the reality that union membership has been dwindling, not just in this country but globally. Unions must come to terms with the fact that a major change in the nature of the economy has introduced significant changes in the labour market.
The labour market is characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work. The traditional approach of increasing membership would therefore require serious revision. The intrusion and adoption of smart technologies in the workplace continue to transform the nature of work, the result of which is to make many workers redundant. With more than half of the working class being unemployed, unions may need to go beyond fighting for the rights of only the employed.
* Seepe is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Institutional Support, University of Zululand