Playing the race card as polls loom

Posted on March 18, 2011


(First published 11 March, 2011)

Whenever an election looms, the rumour mills tend to grind away, often fuelled by ill-considered comments by politicians.  It’s the same the world over, compounded by media manipulation, distortions of fact and outright falsification being all too often the order of the days leading up to polling time.

But there is also ongoing politicking within structures such as trade unions and their federations.  Competing for members and jockeying for position applies within and between elements of the labour movement.

The result, in both cases, can be a confusing mass of claims, counter-claims, allegations and self-serving argument.  South Africa is no exception although — courtesy of our history — the race card is tends to be the major trump in the political pack.

A classic case of this kind filled the news pages this week and saw the overlap between electoral and labour movement politicking.  Proposed amendments to the Employment Equity Act provided the fuel;  ill-considered comments by cabinet spokesperson, Jimmy Manyi, the match.

But there seemed to be little substance behind the crackle of verbiage and smoke of confusion that poured forth.  Sensational reporting and shallow analysis probably left much of the public bewildered or — in the case of minority communities — frightened by claims of threats to jobs and security.

The publication of comments by Manyi about an apparent “oversupply of coloured people” in the Western Cape has been the prime focus.  It was released by the union,  Solidarity, and affiliate of the Confederation of South African Workers’ Unions (Consawu) some five months after it was first made — and as the local government election campaign moved into full swing.  This timing is widely seen as a political tactic.

Consawu also this week petitioned parliament to withdraw the proposed amendments to the Employment Equity Act.  The move came at the same time that the tripartite National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) was scheduled to meet to start discussions on the amendments.

The labour movement is represented at Nedlac by the three older federations, Cosatu, the Federation of Unions (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).  Consawu’s application to be represented on Nedlac has been rejected and the federation is now attempting, through the courts, to gain a seat at the tripartite table.

Given this background, the three older federations tend to see the Consawu petition to parliament, as a “stunt”, since the labour movement is united in condemning the proposed amendments as, at the very least, badly drafted and unconstitutional.

Regarding Manyi’s comments, the most diplomatic response comes from Nactu general secretary, Manene Samela, who categorises them as “insensitive”.  Fedusa’s Dennis George, dismisses them out of hand as scaremongering.

As soon as the comments were published, Cosatu issued a statements condemning them as racist.  So did the ANC, at least initially.  Then there was a sudden switch of tack, following a meeting for the ANC’s National Working Committee.

This change to support of Manyi was accompanied by various reinterpretations of what Manyi “really meant”.  However, this probably has more to do with the internal politics and power plays within the governing party than with any attempt at clarity.  And ignored in governmental comments — although not by the labour movement and opposition groups — is the clear conflict of interest manifest in Jimmy Manyi’s position as government spokesperson.

A reminder:  while in this civil service position, 47-year-old Jimmy Mzwanele Manyi is also president of the Confederation of Black Business Organisations and heads the Black Management Forum.  He also apparently retains non-executive directorships in several companies.

The unions, probably without exception, are concerned about Manyi’s position.  And they are also united in opposing the currently proposed amendments to Employment Equity.  “That is precisely what they are:  proposed amendments,” says Cosatu national spokesperson, Patrick Craven.

The labour delegates to Nedlac all agree that it would be against the labour laws and the constitution for anyone to be dismissed from a job on the grounds of redressing employment equity.  However, this interpretation is possible, given the way the amendments are drafted.

But both George and Samela stress that, as the law — in line with the constitution — stands, only “suitably qualified people” should be employed in any job vacancy, with preference given to candidates from historically disadvantaged communities.  “Only a suitably qualified person or someone who may be trained in a reasonable amount of time to handle a job qualifies for employment,” says Samela.

The aim of the Equity Act, he stresses, is to redress historic imbalances.  “But the amendments are badly drafted,” says Cosatu’s Western Cape secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, himself under attack by the Democratic Alliance (DA) for having been nominated, as an ANC member, as a potential ANC mayoral candidate for Cape Town.

Cosatu’s Craven, agrees about the poor drafting, not only of the latest amendments, but also of “many amendments and Bills”.  “However, all these matters have to come before Nedlac to be discussed before there can be any action on them,” he says.  With both business and labour opposed the the current employment equity proposals, they will not pass muster.

A senior Cosatu official blames the poor drafting of much recent proposed legislations on the fact that “after a major fallout [by the labour department] with a leading union legal firm, all this drafting went in-house, to civil servants”.  The constitution, he maintains, must be the touchstone.

Cosatu’s founding general secretary and former government minister, Jay Naidoo, this week agreed that “loyalty to the constitution is the only loyalty we need”.  But, as  another former government minister and constitutional law expert, Professor Kader Asmal, has pointed out, a constitutional provision has already been breached.

Asmal was supported by the Cosatu-affiliated Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union in pointing out that the reintroduction of military ranks in the police — turning commissioners into generals — required a constitutional amendment.

The constitution remains unchanged.  But General Bheki Cele now heads a remilitarised police service.

Perhaps, as a minority of union voices caution, there is cause for concern.