A May Day lesson for SA labour

Posted on May 6, 2017


The tumultuous events in Bloemfontein on May Day together with the lesser incidents in KwaZulu Natal and Limpopo, where ANC leaders were booed and heckled, illustrated more starkly than ever before the huge rifts within the ANC-led alliance. They should also have raised questions, especially in the labour movement, about united fronts or so-called “broad church” alliances.

The immediate reaction by Free State premier Ace Magashule to the fact that Cosatu’s May Day rally was closed down, with President Jacob Zuma having to speed away in his 12-car convoy, was also telling. Just as was the extent to which political elements will go to create an illusion of support.

The attempt by a group of men and women wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan 100% Zuma was a classic, although badly bungled, example of what is known as “ambush marketing”. This public relations ploy became notorious at the time of the Commonwealth games in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1973.

In Christchurch, a rival company to the one that had provided the artificial athletic track employed strategically placed “jumpers” to hoist the rival logo whenever TV cameras focussed on a section of the crowd. In Bloemfontein, the “red shirts” — the colour identified with Cosatu — tried take over the march to the stadium. When they were thwarted, they moved quickly to the stadium and were allowed to dominate front rows before the speaker’s platform.

Who paid for the 100% Zuma T-shirts and who organised the red shirt contingent is still unclear. But there were also large groups of ANC Youth League and Women’s League members who were bussed in, all to no avail since a large section of trade unionists made it clear they did not want President Jacob Zuma there.

In the immediate aftermath, Magashule, an outspoken Zuma supporter, maintained that the anti-Zuma faction comprised people from outside his province where all workers were ANC members and all supported the president. He persisted in this delusional mode by claiming that the modern trade union movement had been formed by the ANC and that the ANC was responsible for Cosatu. Enemies were at work.

This is a continuation of the increasingly strident claim from senior ANC structures that the broad church of the ANC remains the only true way forward to a future promised land; that those who dispute this are are political heretics, enemies and traitors. But all this indicates is desperation.

The stress throughout is that the ANC, the “broad church” of the anti-apartheid movement, remains a necessary structure to which all truly loyal South Africans should belong. But the rationale for such a broad church, the defeat of apartheid, evaporated 22 years ago. In any event, even then, there were probably more people outside of the broad church than in.

After 1994, the vital question was: what should replace the system of racial exclusivity? By 1996, the united trade union movement had a clear programme, published as Social Equity and Job Creation. Well argued, it stressed redistribution as the priority, leading to growth and was, in broad terms, supported by the Communist Party (SACP) a fellow institutional members of the broad church.

Business put forward its programme, stressing the opposite: economic growth leading to redistribution, the so-called “trickle-down” theory. The ANC government then stepped in with its own trickle-down version, Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR).

Although ideologically facing in opposite directions, the leaderships of the ANC and the alliance partners continued to maintain a broad, but fractious church. A mixture of hope, myth, patronage and organisational loyalty kept an increasingly disgruntled congregation at least nominally together.

Those days are now past although there is a concerted effort within the ANC to turn the clock back. But the simple lesson that was spelled out on May Day — and not only in Bloemfontein — was that there is probably only broad church necessary in a multi-party parliamentary democracy: an intensely democratic trade union movement, organising all workers as workers, that can hold to account politicians of every stripe.

Whether that lesson will sink in, time alone will tell.