The poison of unprincipled unity

Posted on October 7, 2017


Job losses continue apace and the process seems unlikely to be reversed. That was a comment attributed to South Africa’s statistician general Pali Lehohla and it triggered an angry response from ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. According to Mantashe, Lehohla had no right to make such an assessment.

But the statistician general is probably the best qualified person to judge such matters. In any event, in so doing, he was merely noting what authoritative bodies such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have agreed is a global tendency, one of the consequences of the so-called “fourth industrial revolution”.

This has for long been a wake-up call to workers everywhere and especially to their organisations, the unions. And workers, because they still control most major points of production, have a great deal of potential power.

Mantashe, a former chair of the SA Communist Party and former general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers should know this. He probably does. But he, like rest of the embattled leadership of the governing party, is currently in the business of trying to create an illusion of better times ahead, despite the factionalism that is now dangerously — sometimes lethally — underway in the ANC.

The result is that the stress is on the promise of a better future; that it is just a matter of a changing of the guard at the top of the governing party. This was the role of Cosatu last week as considerable numbers of affiliated unions took to the streets to condemn corruption but, primarily, to call to dump President Jacob Zuma in favour of Cyril Ramaphosa.

The wake-up call about looming job losses was largely ignored. As was another wake-up call specifically to South African public sector unions: the rumours of potential raids on state pension funds. These, as I said last week, were hardly allayed by finance minister Malusi Gigaba.

Warning flags should have been raised throughout the labour movement when government agreed yet another — this time R3 billion — bailout for the barely still airborne SA Airways. Because the money was found from the government’s revenue account, much of which comes from workers, employed and unemployed, who contribute by direct and indirect tax to the fiscus. So it is the disproportionate amount of cash that the sellers of labour contribute that has gone, yet again, to bail out the mismanaged and scandal-ridden national carrier.

This latest bailout adds to the R16.4 billion in government guaranteed funds already swallowed by the airline. It is an ongoing saga: two years ago, a R6.5 billion bailout was agreed on condition that SAA would provide a “90-day rescue plan within a month”.

With no signs yet of a turn around or rescue, it is little wonder that public sector unions are becoming increasingly nervous about their pension funds. But, as I pointed out last week, these monies cannot legally be touched without the complicity of the trade union trustees who serve on pension fund boards. To permit a raid on such funds would also mean trustees forgoing their fiduciary duties.

However, what the state pension fund issue has highlighted is the fact that there is a massive amount of worker money invested via trade unions. And most such funds, it can be argued, are being used to prop up the very system that the unions claim to oppose: a system that has seen joblessness grow and the wage and welfare gap widen grotesquely.

This is the antithesis of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), launched with such hope and fanfare in 1994 and, to all intents and purposes, effectively dismantled from 1996 onwards. The ANC government’s alliance partners, the SA Communist Party and Cosatu, condemned this economic trajectory as the “1996 class project”. But while they bewailed what was happening, they remained within the alliance and part of government.

The major reason for this is the poisonous belief that unity of the organisation must be maintained at all costs; that change can only come from within; that if unity is threatened, corruption and abuses of various kinds have to be tolerated. And so, from the early years of exile, this cancer became embedded within the ANC. Corrupt elements, usually with real or perceived factional support, were able to thrive. They continue to do so although the centre can no longer keep everything in check within a parliamentary democracy.

At the same time, many honest and now marginalised members calling for a principled ANC, persist with the dangerous fantasy of unity at all costs, their attitude to the organisation akin to those of religious acolytes. However, there is a growing realisation that the answer to real change does not lie with the ANC; that it must come from society’s rank and file: from the sellers of labour, united, democratically, and on the basis of principle.

Here there seems to be a clear and leading role for the unions. But only if they can return fully to their democratic roots and unite the majority of the population on the basis of such principles as those contained in South Africa’s rightly lauded Bill of Rights.

Is that, perhaps, too much to hope for?