State & union ‘capture’ in South Africa

Posted on September 10, 2016


State capture. These are two of perhaps the most used words in recent political and social commentary in South Africa.

And here they seem to have a very specific meaning: the attempt — or possible success — of a single family, the Guptas, in being able to exercise great and undue influence over the government. In this case by allegedly controlling President Jacob Zuma who, in turn, ensures his control via ministerial appointments and patronage.

However, this is not a peculiarly South African development. What makes the local situation different is that it is so blatant, even crude, with senior ANC figures complaining that they were offered ministerial posts, not by the president, but by the Gupta family.

Even this is not unique. In several parts of the world and certainly in Uttar Pradesh, home state in India of the Guptas, similar allegations about the direct and undue influence of business figures on government is commonplace. Mostly, however, such “capture” is very low key and seldom makes headlines. But, when business is involved, the common denominator is always money.

For politicians in parliamentary systems, power is sometimes the priority, although large crumbs of largesse from the business table always seem to be welcomed if not expected. This creates a symbiotic relationship between business and political elites that often starts well before individual politicians reach posts of serious influence.

It is this that has apparently caused widespread disillusionment with the established order, its politicians, political parties and their policies. Donald Trump in the United States is a product of this time. But so was the emergence of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and of proclaimed socialists, Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain.

In these turbulent economic times, and in a much smaller way, this gave rise in South Africa to the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). But it has also given a renewed boost to the Communist Party (SACP), so causing strains within the alliance.

For these parties and others, the illusion of democracy — in which voters every four or five years go to the polls to put crosses on ballots to hand over the power they collective have to a political elite — provides the route to power, to state capture. However, the SACP still remains part of the governing ANC-led alliance.

Since the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers’ union (Numsa) from Cosatu (and its leaders leaving the SACP) the grip on the labour movement of traditional communists has been weakened. Now, with four heavily SACP-influenced Cosatu unions agreeing to host the congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in Durban next month, a new capture looms. This because Cosatu remains affiliated to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) that does not regard the WFTU as a legitimate labour organisation.

The reason for the ITUC stance is that the WFTU has its roots within communist parties once allied to the former Soviet bloc. As such, it has within its ranks state-dominated unions in countries such as Syria, Vietnam and in North Korea a country that provides an even more grotesque parody of socialism than did the Soviet Union.

The language used by the WFTU also echoes the jargon-ridden rhetoric of the Cold War era, referring to European trade union leaders as “spineless agents of the bourgeoisie” and attacking social democratic parties as being in league with “class enemies”. Yet the ANC is classified social democratic and is a member of the Socialist International (SI).

That the SI is a rather ineffectual polyglot of often only vaguely labour oriented groups that have tended to adopt neo-liberal, anti-worker policies has helped the WFTU re-emerge from relative obscurity. It has also revived the almost religious belief among traditional communists that the only alternative to the present system is that which was practiced in the former Soviet bloc.

The WFTU is solidly within this tradition as it tries to “bring Cosatu home”. Yet Cosatu emerged from the independent “workerist” unions of the 1970s that were opposed by the WFTU and the self-exiled, SACP-run SA Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu).

Their opposition was based on their then dogma that there could be no “real” trade unions in a South African “fascist state”. This position changed when it became obvious that independent, worker-run unions had emerged.

Union capture then became the name of the game, along with the myth that Cosatu represents a mere extension of Sactu. So next month’s WFTU congress will honour the SACP unionists “who pioneered Cosatu’s predecessor, Sactu”.

However, missing from the congress will be Numsa, the biggest union in the country and the prime supporter, in 2012, of WFTU affiliation. Because Numsa, which like the WFTU, classifies itself as a “Marxist-Leninist” organisation, was expelled by Cosatu.

This all seems to indicate that it is high time Cosatu unions learn the lessons of their democratic origins and do not fall prey to the statist, “conveyor belt,” alternative proposed by the likes to the WFTU.