(First published 11 February,2011)
Jobs, decent work, casualisation and labour broking. No matter what was said in the State of the Nation Address yesterday, these remain the cardinal points of discussion, not only in the labour movement, but more broadly.
The focus now will be on implementation and how best to really reduce unemployment instead of merely massaging the statistics, and how, indeed, to provide a better life for all. On Wednesday evening, in the unlikely surroundings of the exclusive Cape Town Club, a new group was launched that professed to have answers.
In an air-conditioned ground floor anteroom of the club, its walls bedecked with oil paintings of old South African and US air force fighter aircraft, the Indibano Foundation for Democracy, Innovation and Development formally came into being. News of the launch and the claims made at the launch caused some raised eyebrows in the labour movement – and considerable annoyance.
However, trade unions were, apparently, not invited. Nor, it seemed, were the media, but invitations were sent to various non-governmental organisations, addressed to “Comrade, Sister, Brother, Sir, Madam!”
They stated that the foundation “aims to be the catalyst for critical dialogue about the state of our nation, our continent and our world, a centre for developing innovative solutions to development challenges that we face and, hopefully, for shaking the status quo”.
The invitation was on behalf of foundation trustee Phillip Dexter MP, better known these days as the spokesman for the Lekota faction of the strife-torn Cope and a former treasurer of the SACP and general secretary of the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu). It was sent out by Roscoe Palm, the communications officer for the Cope Youth Movement.
Also present, as trustees, were trade unionists and Cope members Bernard Joseph and Ernest Theron. Joseph, a former Nehawu member and Theron, who lost his vice-presidential position in the Food and Allied Workers’ Union in an internal union feud, have been involved in trying to form a new, independent general union.
A fourth trustee present was Dexter’s current partner and Cope member, Bregje Wijsenbeek. However, Dexter insisted: “This is not a Cope initiative.” It was an initiative open to all and the “flagship project” of the foundation was a “casual workers project (CWP)”.
Other projects were also envisaged, including the production of a “green motor vehicle that will cost just R35 000”. This, said Dexter, was the brainchild of “French entrepreneur Patrick Sagaspe” who arrived at the launch with the Cope MP.
Sagaspe, who did not take part in the discussions, is the chairman and chief executive of Centreville, the holding company of minerals outfit Urafields. Until late last year, Dexter was advertised on the now password-protected Urafields website as the chief executive of Centreville and vice-president of Urafield.
Speaking before the launch, Dexter said he had resigned these positions. He no longer held directorships and shares were held “in my family trust”.
Having last year completed his doctorate in religious studies with a thesis on “a materialist theory of the sacred” Dexter felt he again had the time to devote to help create “a healthy virus to counter the disease of mediocrity”.
Referring to the audience and himself as “we of the Left” and as socialists, he said the first step was the creation of the foundation and the CWP. This project would organise casual workers and supply temporary labour to various sectors of the economy in a way that would maximise the income and benefits to the workers.
Dexter admitted that this was already done on a national scale by the Men at the Side of the Road (MSR), but maintained that the CWP would be different in that it would be a “worker co-operative”.
“Which is what we are in all but name only,” said MSR Tshwane regional manager Peter Skelton.
However, the CWP also aims to establish a trade union for unemployed and casual workers that “will become the biggest union in the land”. Such a union was necessary because casual and unemployed workers had been “abandoned” by existing trade unions.
Responsible for building this union is trustee Thomas Poese, a former labour relations councillor at the German embassy. Poese worked until recently with the Nehawu investment company that Dexter is suing for R30 million for what he says are unpaid bonuses.
Dexter maintained that the trustees had “consulted widely” before the launch and that the concept of the CWP had been canvassed “for many years with people like (businessman and political analyst) Moeletsi Mbeki”. However, MSR director Peter Kratz said yesterday that he had not even heard of the project or the foundation and Mbeki noted that he had “never been party to such discussions”.
Kratz pointed out that MSR shared its experience with anyone interested in the MSR project. He also welcomed “any initiative that may help put more people into work”.
Manene Samela, the general secretary of the National Council of Trade Unions, also welcomed “any good job creation project”, but felt the CWP “seems like re-inventing the wheel”.
He pointed out that organised labour was currently engaged in talks with the government to “tighten up the laws and their implementation” regarding casual labour, so the CWP was “wasting time”.
“It’s a publicity stunt,” said Federation of Unions general secretary Dennis George. “The whole question is being dealt with now and we don’t know yet what the way forward will be.”
Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven pointed out that, far from abandoning casual workers, many unions, especially in the retail sector, actively recruited temporary workers. The establishment of yet another separate union was “divisive” and “like Cope itself, is doomed to fail”.
Most of the critical trade unionists saw the foundation and its projects as a Cope initiative or as a vehicle to provide a “lifeboat” for if and when Cope finally collapsed.
There were also mentions of Dexter’s chequered career, with one retired public sector worker referring to him as “a man for all reasons”.