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Inside Labour: Same, same in SA - only much messier

Aug 04 2017 06:00
Terry Bell

Relations between the ANC-led alliance and the labour movement provide an apparent parallel to those of 30 years ago, says labour columnist Terry Bell.

MUCH has changed in South Africa over the past 30 years, yet so much has remained the same. Institutional apartheid has gone, but the spatial - the geographic - reality remains. So too does the wage and welfare gap, the only difference being that it has grown, making it more of the same.

This brings to mind the comment by French novelist Alphonse Karr that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But in many instances, it also seems as if, on the political and organisational front, it is a question of back to square one, although often riddled with irony. Which may, of course, be much the same thing.

The ANC-led alliance and its relationship to the labour movement provides a classic example, with relations on one level being an apparent parallel to those of 30 years ago. This is certainly so in the historically militant anti-apartheid sector.

Externally, there was the ANC in alliance with the SA Communist Party (SACP) and the self-exiled SA Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu), controlled largely by the SACP. Internally, there were newly emergent and militant unions - generally dubbed “workerist” and influenced by an often fractious variety of socialist groupings or by Black Consciousness - that went on to form Cosatu and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).

The exiled alliance initially opposed the internal unions, claiming that Sactu was “the only true representative of the working class of South Africa”. But when it became obvious that the internal organisations were independent and genuinely represented South African workers, Sactu was closed down and Cosatu was wooed, joining the ANC-led alliance in 1990.

“Workerist” trade unionists, prime among them members of what became the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), saw this as a temporary measure to defeat apartheid. Once the ANC was in government, an employer within a capitalist system, it would be necessary for the unions to again become independent to press for greater worker control, usually proclaimed as “socialism”.

But the majority in Cosatu, encouraged by the SACP, argued that the road to this ill-defined socialism could be through the ANC and via Parliament. So Cosatu and SACP members “wearing ANC hats” entered Parliament, where everything remained the same, despite this change.

Cosatu and SACP members even became ministers responsible for policies that were often diametrically opposed to those of the federation and the SACP. Perhaps such contradictions and the tensions they caused were dulled by patronage and the trappings of power, but they existed - and grew.

Zuma tsunami

However, the two alliance partners remained wedded to the idea that an ANC-led alliance in government was the way forward: it was just the leadership of the ANC that was at fault. This led to the “Zuma tsunami” headed by then SACP member and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi that toppled president Thabo Mbeki. This change brought about more of the same - only much worse.

So now we have Cosatu, claiming to be the true representative of the workers of South Africa, opposing President Jacob Zuma and supporting Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a leading capitalist, to lead the alliance. Cosatu also acknowledges the SACP as THE workers’ party which, contrary to many reports, has not taken a decision to stand independently in the 2019 elections.

Taking the position that South Africa needs a “real workers’ party” is the SA Federation of Trade Union (Saftu), headed by Vavi and where the mainstay is Numsa which, like the militant unions of the past is struggling with internal ideological tensions.

However, the union is more bureaucratic than it was in its early days. But the position taken is precisely that of the “workerists” of 30 years ago when they opposed both what they called the “bourgeois” ANC and “Stalinist” SACP.

This time the prime influence at a leadership level seems to be the former social activist and United States-based IT tycoon, Neville - “Roy” - Singham, a self-proclaimed socialist and founder of ThoughtWorks. He and Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim are apparently set on establishing a “pan-African media hub” in Johannesburg to counter the “hegemony of the bourgeois media”. 

In the meantime, ThoughtWorks is contracted to establish a database for Numsa that is aimed at ironing out the chaotic membership and financial records of the union. At the same time, the pan-African element seems at the moment to be concentrated on Zambia.

All in all, it seems more like back to a rather messier square one than to the more things change, the more they stay the same.

* Add your voice or just drop Terry a labour question. Follow Terry on twitter @telbelsa.

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terry bell  |  inside labour  |  labour

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