The death of Walter Ntombela, worker activist, National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) shop steward and father of three has focussed trade union attention on the poison of xenophobia. For Walter, a senior shopfloor leader for the past decade, died because he was from Mozambique.
He stayed and worked in Gauteng, an example of the unity in diversity that is the basis of our much lauded constitution. It is also the the bedrock of trade unionism, with its slogans calling on workers of all countries to unite and proclaiming that an injury to one is an injury to all.
Following his death, and the decision of his wife and children to flee for their safety across the imaginary line that separates South Africa from Mozambique, Numsa launched a series of factory meetings. This week, around the country, these were used to explain xenophobia and how it can spill over into other often blood soaked divisions.
Divisiveness is part of the history of the labour movement which we ignore at our peril. It is a history peppered with examples of the principle of worker unity being turned into empty rhetoric by contradictory actions and statements. A classic example being the slogan of the 1922 “Rand revolt”: Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa.
Yet for more than a decade now we have seen many people in authority attempting deliberately to erase much of our history. They try to obscure the social and cultural poisons bequeathed to us by the past by papering them over with platitudes about nation-building, patriotism and a rainbow nation. These are the people who maintain that 1994 meant that the door on the past should be closed.
A few trade unionists, mostly with the mentality of the white miners of 1922, also promote this nonsense. But other union leaders, often with excellent credentials in the struggle for human rights, also seem, in recent years, to have ignored the lessons of history.
By words and actions that sent out confused and conflicting messages to their members and to the public at large they contributed to a climate in which xenophobia could thrive.
More aware trade unionists now ask how it is possible to speak of international worker solidarity while joining in campaigns with local bosses to compete against workers of other countries. Especially when capital is global and the bosses internationally may be identical: it is in their interests to pit worker against worker in what is correctly termed a race to the bottom.
In such circumstances, any calls to worker patriotism by bosses and by governments seem clearly to be the acts of scoundrels.
It is also difficult to refute the argument that actions by union leaders that result in divisions among organised workers deserve to be classified as either stupid or knavish. One unionist claimed on radio this week that “comrades have been destroying each other because of differences of political opinion and tactics”.
This was an obvious reference to the apparently vindictive actions prompted by differences of opinion about who should be the president of the ANC. Other unionists have also noted the failure of the trade union leadership to immediately condemn the flaunting of “100% Zulu Boy” T-shirts especially when such condemnation could have been used educationally to campaign against xenophobia.
After all, our early trade union movement, for all its faults and failings, was started by immigrants. And it was a migrant worker from Nyasaland (Malawi), Clements Kadalie, who launched in South Africa what was once the biggest trade union on the continent, the Industrial and Commercial Union.
Perhaps it is time now to try again to make real the pledge of worker unity in all its diversity.