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INSIDE LABOUR: Back to basics ahead of elections 2019

Mar 08 2019 06:45
Terry Bell

The senior shop steward was exasperated. 

"Who should I vote for?" he asked, with a shrug of his shoulders. It is a question on many lips as the country heads toward the May 8 poll amid widespread disillusionment with the political establishment.

Increasingly, it seems, our proclaimed democracy is being seen as a sham, with current political parties regarded as mere vehicles for self-enrichment.  This has given rise to a record number of new parties, all professing to provide answers to what is generally regarded as a social and economic mess.

Parliament vs. the Lotto

But here, too, there are grounds for considerable cynicism. After all, a seat in Parliament means a pay packet, minus perks, of more than R1 million a year for a five-year term. The odds are certainly better than winning the equivalent on the Lotto, even if the initial registration investment is much higher than a few tickets in panda, pusha, play.

Just as significant, as we head toward May 8, is the fact that at least a quarter of potential voters — some 9 million women and men — have not registered to vote. The majority of these appear to be under the age of 30. Also, judged by the last 2014 election in 2014, perhaps another 6million or more registered voters, many of whom have had registrations carried over from previous polls, will not vote.

Politicians, especially in the governing ANC, may — as they have in the past — put this abstention and non-registration down to so many people being contented with the status quo. But they clearly are not. 

The same applied in 2014 when, whatever the arguments, the country ended up with a minority government.  As the late economic historian Sampie Terreblanche pointed out, the 62% electoral majority achieved by the ANC in that year, translated, in real terms, to 38% of the electorate.

More of the same

This year, with a greater number of competing parties, seems to promise even more of the same when non-registrations, non-voting and spoilt ballots (sometimes examples of deliberate protests) are taken into account.  And many among those who choose not to vote or to spoil their ballot papers will be trade unionists.

So where do the trade unions stand in this confused and confusing environment? Cosatu which previously called unequivocally for all to vote for the ANC, has hedged its bets: the organisation declares support for the governing party, but states that members should choose who to vote for.

The Federation of Union of SA (Fedusa) has always refused, as an organisation, to publicly support any one political party, although leading members have made clear their backing for the ANC. This "non-advisory" position was also adopted several years ago by the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).   

That was before Nactu general secretary Narious Moloto took on the presidency of the Pan Africanist Congress.  This caused tensions that have still to be resolved.

Non-affiliated unions such as the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union maintain that it is up to the members to decide how or even whether or not they will vote. This is a similar position to that taken by the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), the breakaway from Cosatu that was established in April 2017 and which claims a membership of 800 000.

However, Saftu is also committed to supporting the building, with community and civic groups, of a workers’ party "from the bottom up". But, at the same time, the federation’s largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), has launched the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP) that will contest the May 8 elections.  

As a result, the Saftu national executive will meet next week to decide whether or not to endorse any political party for the May 8 poll. Although the SRWP is denigrated by many in Saftu as the "SACP [SA Communist Party] Mark 2", there will be pressure to support it as "at least a step towards getting back to basics".

Back to basics

And getting back to basics — a slogan initially adopted by Cosatu — is very much on union minds as austerity threatens to bite still harder.  These "basics" also extend well beyond the "nine wasted [Zuma] years" mentioned by President Cyril Ramaphosa. They extend to the adoption of the liberal Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) outline in 1996 and back to 1991.

The "growth first" GEAR outline of 1996 superseded a much more detailed proposal from the combined union movement that made redistribution the focus of macro-economic policy.  But the unions were largely mute as government ignored their proposal.

In 1991 another well-structured proposal, that some unionists now maintain could have avoided many of the problems of today, was also buried. But, in that case, it was professed radicals within Cosatu who killed the proposal, dubbing it "too capitalistic".  

The scheme was the brainchild of then newly returned exile, Moeletsi Mbeki. He proposed that the unions use their substantial pension and provident funds to establish a co-operative bank.  With Johannesburg’s Hillbrow flatland as the initial target, the bank would provide the funds to make available refurbished flats for sale and rent to workers. 

"If we had taken that scheme up then we would have avoided many of the problems of today," says PSA (Public Servants Association) deputy general manager Tahir Maepa. Now, with considerable controversy raging about union investment companies, there is talk of perhaps going back to such basics.

However, Mbeki, today an author and businessman, is doubtful if such a scheme could be resurrected. 

"At the time [1991], local capital was very nervous about the future and was happy to come aboard, now half the ANC is in the pockets of capital," he says.

thabo mbeki  |  terry bell  |  elections 2019  |  politics  |  labour
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