Over the past two weeks, there has been a sudden drop in the number of stories about labour issues. There is still a lot happening in trade unions, but the media have given them less attention as they have been covering South Africa’s ongoing political crisis.
Yet this crisis is just as much a labour issue as it is about the affairs of the state because workers are invariably the worst hit when an economy slides into a recession, which will most likely happen now that the ratings agencies have downgraded the economy to “junk”.
Even more jobs will probably be shed and fewer new ones created.
Inflation is likely to push up the cost of living for the poor, and higher interest rates will add to families’ debt burden.
The intensification of corruption and looting of public resources, which allegedly lies behind President Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet reshuffle, will also exacerbate inequality because it enriches an elite minority at the expense of funding vital public services.
The crisis has exposed different responses from the unions.
The Federation of Unions of SA has thrown its weight firmly behind those who oppose the reshuffle and who are calling for Zuma’s resignation.
Cosatu called for the president to resign, then contradicted itself by condemning those people who marched for that purpose, which can only have confused their members.
The new kid on the block, the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), issued a statement expressing outrage over Zuma’s reshuffle, and appealed to all South Africans “to flood the streets of Pretoria and symbolically occupy Treasury in the strongest possible protest”.
The reshuffle, Saftu said, “confirms our worst fears that the country has now been plunged into its biggest crisis since 1994. We now have a government … that has surrendered power to powerful crony capitalist factions and delivered a slap in the face of millions of South Africans.”
This statement, however, made an important qualification: “Our campaign is distinct from any campaigns against the reshuffle by the very capitalists who are exploiting workers and their political allies such as the DA. We will not defend any ANC or alliance factions that are guilty of implementing austerity measures and neoliberal programmes, which have led to the worsening material conditions of the working class. We are not backing any individual or faction, but fighting against a monopoly capitalist economic system that is taking us towards a deadly, corrupt form of crony capitalism.”
Saftu has also made it clear that it would not support the campaign by opposition parties, in line with its firm commitment to independence.
The federation’s biggest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), took an even more critical stance on those taking to the streets in protest. Referring to the campaign to defend the Treasury and oppose Pravin Gordhan’s sacking, its statement said: “We want to set the record straight on the open war between Pravin Gordhan and Jacob Zuma ... Both of these groups belong to the same class – the capitalist class. They are our class enemies, as the working class. Both do not deserve our support. Both want to loot us; to oppress us; to exploit us. Both are responsible for our suffering! Both of these groups are guilty of ignoring the poor and the working class.”
All of Saftu’s affiliates are committed to building an independent, worker-controlled and democratic organisation, but one that is apolitical and needs to engage in robust, democratic debate on any issue that affects workers – and this is a good example of such an issue.
When there are differences of approach and emphasis, these should not be swept under the carpet, but used to educate the working class on the best way to mobilise and use their power to bring about sustainable economic growth – and an end to unemployment, poverty and inequality – through a socialist programme.
The union will not follow the example of other federations in stifling discussion, handing down policies from the leaders and settling differences through expulsions, as Cosatu did with Numsa, but take issues to the rank and file for debate and a mandate, and only then adopt this as a federation policy. Saftu’s founding congress from April 21 to 23 will provide the forum for just such a debate.
Craven is acting Saftu spokesperson