SA govt decisions sow union discord

Posted on December 9, 2011


The South African government’s latest moves directed, ostensibly, at combating corruption and maladministration have sown considerable confusion, distrust and suspicion in sections of the trade union movement. Most confusion seems to exist within the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), the union that was to the forefront of the campaign to remove advocate Willie Hofmeyr as head of the corruption busting Special Investigations Unit (SIU).

The Nehawu complaint had been about the lack — on an ethnic basis — of transformation in a unit where perhaps 300 of the SIU’s staff complement of 506 are members of Nehawu. The union complained that the four-strong executive committee comprised three white males and one African male and that senior positions throughout the SIU remain dominated by melanin deprived males.

The analysis by the union of the ethnic composition of senior SIU positions is correct — but it is also a good example of the legacy of apartheid education in a unit demanding highly specialised skills. Because of the country’s history, senior forensic investigators with many years of experience tend to be drawn from the previously advantaged minority, creating a promotions bottleneck for younger, mainly black, investigators.

The frustration among bright young graduates in the SIU is real enough: with skills and experience at a premium, the route to senior positions is blocked by a “old guard” still deemed necessary. Hofmeyr was blamed for this.

But now that Hofmeyr has gone, left to control only the assets forfeiture unit, confusion has set in. This arises from the fact that Hofmeyr, a middle-aged white male with anti-apartheid struggle credentials, was replaced by Willem Heath, an elderly white male hailing from the apartheid judiciary.

The fear among several Nehawu members within the SIU is that the removal of Hofmeyr may not signal the start of employment equity transformation; that the move may merely amount to another shot in the convoluted political battle within the governing ANC, a case of President Jacob Zuma and his supporters exerting political control over the SIU.

This perception was reinforced when Heath, in a clearly ill-considered interview published last Sunday, claimed that former President Thabo Mbeki had effectively stage managed the corruption and rape prosecutions of Zuma; that Shabir Shaik, sentenced to 15 years imprisonment relating to a corrupt relationship with Zuma, had been wrongly convicted.

What Heath did was to voice publicly the conviction of Zuma’s most dedicated supporters who are gearing up for a potentially major battle next year when they try to assure Zuma a second term as ANC president. The fact that this battle is raging is an open secret, but it has also cast a shadow of suspicion over the cabinet’s announcement this week that national government will be taking over the administration of five provincial departments in Limpopo and “intervening” in Gauteng and the Free State.

To the forefront of the calls for the national government to step into Limpopo, was the SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) that has campaigned for years about corruption, especially in that province. In this column and elsewhere, this Cosatu-affiliated union has complained of intimidation, graft, fraud and corruption and about the victimisation of whistle-blowing union members.

However, the government’s announcement this week received only luke warm support from the union. “We cannot give a blanket welcome to national government taking over some of the functions of the Limpopo administration, because we are not too sure at this stage what the real intentions are,” says Samwu spokesperson, Tahir Sema. He adds that the union “will be watching the process closely and welcomes it in principle”.

Although he did not spell it out, a concern among many unionists is that the move into Limpopo, fiefdom of suspended ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema and his associate and provincial premier, Cassel Mathale, may amount merely to a changing of the guard. “They want Cassel (Mathale) out and a Zuma loyalist like Joe (Paahla) in,” is one cynical comment.

If political control is the object, it may have little impact on the ground. “The Limpopo province is run by thugs — gangsters — not politicians,” says Sema.

He maintains that Samwu has evidence that “all spheres of government” in Limpopo have been corrupted and that the situation has reached a stage where honest union shop stewards fear for their lives. “Mainly in Limpopo, but also in the North West, our members have faced physical threats and we know that (the thugs) will go as far as killing to silence whistle blowers,” he says.

The union therefore wants an in-depth audit of every aspect of governance and service delivery in Limpopo to be conducted “openly and transparently”. This stress on transparency is one of the reasons that Samwu was among the first of the Cosatu-affiliated unions to oppose the government’s proposed Protection of State Information legislation.

This Bill, now before the National Council of Provinces, has become part of the political battleground involving unions aligned with the ANC: attitudes toward it provide further evidence of rifts within the governing alliance. Cosatu, as a federation, has come out strongly against the Bill, while there was a minor uproar among members of the Cosatu-affiliated SA Democratic Teachers’ Union when their president, Thobile Ntola opposed it.

Sadtu general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke explains: “The president was speaking from the Cosatu perspective after (the federation) had taken a decision. Our own general council has not yet met to discuss our position.” As an independent affiliate, Sadtu “will be guided by Cosatu” but retains the right to adopt its own position.

What this has shown is that there are strongly held views about the Bill that reflect the fluid and sometimes confusing alliances in the leadership struggle within the ANC. “This political infighting is a problem, but it might not stop a proper clean-up in Limpopo,” says a provincial Samwu official.

“The place is a shambles,” says Sema, “we just hope national politicians realise the extent of the problem — and do something about it.”