Sensational slogans and reformist reality

Posted on March 18, 2011


(First published 25 February, 2011)

Never judge a book by its cover. Nor, for that matter, the prospect of revolution by
the labels given to mass protest, the radical tone of slogans or the harshness of

In a South African context, it also means not jumping to the conclusion that our
liberal parliamentary democracy is under imminent threat or that millions of people face ethnic retrenchment because of the bad drafting of legislative proposals.

Not jumping to conclusions is a lesson that has been underlined in this traditional
month of love and Valentines. This year, in media terms, hearts and flowers were
eclipsed by reports of the sort of peoples’ power that may have provided a glimmer of hope to revolutionaries, but was in fact a shot in the arm for organised labour.

And, as the month moved beyond its midway point, there were headline warnings
that South Africa’s new labour laws would throw a million and more people
previously classified “Coloured” and “Indian” out of work. It was the sort of ethnic
sensationalism onto which that once proudly proclaimed bastion of white worker
privilege now known as Solidarity, quickly pounced.

And, with local government elections looming, this was also grist to the mill of
opposition parties in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, home to the majority
“Coloured” and “Indian” communities. But it was another example — to use another cliché — of jumping the gun.

What the badly drafted proposal stated was a that employment equity — the attempt to have faces in the workplace representing as closely as possible the demographics of the country — should be applied in every province on the basis of national demographics. In other words, every workplace should contain workforces in roughly equal proportion to the ethnic makeup of the country.

That is, of course, an ideal. But taken at face value, this implies that every workplace in the Western Cape, where there exists a majority of “Coloured” people and KZN where there is a disproportionate number of “Indians” would face the prospect a sort of ethnic jobs cleansing.

In the first place, any such move would be unconstitutional as well as contrary to
existing labour legislation. This was something pointed out by Andre Kriel, general
secretary of the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union.

He noted that this badly drafted piece of labour law was still in the process of being
amended and, as it presently reads, would not stand muster in South Africa’s political dispensation. But that did not stop the scare stories from doing the rounds.

In much the same way, many activists in the trade unions and the wider social
movements around the world see news of the political upheavals — spread largely by Facebook — that began last month in Tunisia as the harbinger of major social
transformation: of revolution. However, beyond the rhetoric and sloganising, what
these upheavals provide is a focus for optimism, pride, trade union recruitment and the hope of reform.

For those trade unionists and political activists with a sense and knowledge of history, the little reported events in the state of Wisconsin in the US provides a special focus.

In that state’s capital, Madison, on February 14 — Valentine’s Day — some 2 000
students, backed by trade unionists, marched on the legislature. One of the placards carried in this raucous demonstration read: “Egypt = 18 days; Wisconsin = ???”

An international revolution in the making? — Hardly, the Madison protest was
against proposed cuts in social spending and an attempt by the state government to eliminate centralised bargaining for public sector workers. On succeeding days, with the unions organised, up to 30 000 protesters marched and public sector unionists across the country began to stir.

News of that demonstration — and a picture of that placard — flashed across the
internet. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a 21-year-old engineering student made a placard in response. It read: “Egypt supports Wisconsin workers; one world, one pain.” It too, joined the internet traffic via Facebook.

What many of the mainly young trade unionists and workers did not realise was the iconic status of the mass protest in the capital of a state in the north-east of the US.

For, almost to the day, 46 years ago, Madison — along with Berkley, California —
was the scene of the first major protest against the war in Vietnam that drew together students and workers and grew into one of the biggest protest movements the US has ever seen.

There was also a South African connection: one of the students involved in that
trigger to national protest was Pallo Jordan. His involvement resulted in the US
authorities refusing to renew his student visa and he left for Britain. He went on from there as an anti-apartheid activist to be arrested, tortured, and injured by a letter bomb before becoming a minister in both the Mandela and Mbeki governments.

But, as Jordan himself admits, those heady days of 1965, despite often fiery rhetoric, did not amount to the start of a revolution. “We were clearly against the war and not for any revolutionary transformation of society,” he says. And the war dragged on for years.

Today the slogans are just as radical as 46 years ago, but the protests in Madison are aimed only to hold onto rights that workers fought for and enjoyed for many years.

They also make the demand that social services should not be reduced; they are, in
effect, a from of service delivery protest.

The Madison movement exists, therefore, to maintain a status quo that the revolts in north Africa and the Gulf wish to achieve, even if some want it to be in Islamic garb.

The demands are for freedom of association, freedom to organise and the right to
have free and fair elections for parliament.

These are very limited demands in line with human rights provisions of the United
Nations and the conventions of the International Labour Organisation. This is what “the street” demands.  And, at least for the moment, it means reform, not revolution.