Labour pickets at the ‘sport of kings’

Posted on January 28, 2018


Trade union pickets confronted the fashionistas and glitterati who turned up on Saturday (January 27) for one of the premier events in the South African horse racing calendar, the Cape — now Sun — Met in Cape Town. For probably the first time in the 134-year history of this mink and manure fiesta it was targeted, but to little effect, by the labour movement.

The reason is Markus Jooste and the implosion of the Steinhoff International empire. For Jooste, the disgraced Steinhoff CEO, is one of the major figures in South Africa’s version of the sport of kings. And, according to the largest public sector union in the country, the PSA (Public Servants Association), his influence through “key horseracing interests” has resulted in the loss of up to 85 000 non-public sector jobs in the racing industry since 1997.

This in addition to what PSA general manager Ivan Fredericks says are “the life-changing financial losses suffered by thousands of workers” because of Steinhoff’s relative collapse. PSA deputy general manager Tahir Maepa estimates that the government employee pension fund lost up to R12 billion.

The “non-public sector jobs” relate to jobs in the racing and horse breeding sector. According to Maepa, there were 100 000 jobs in 1997 when Jooste’s Phumela Gaming & Leisure, a limited company listed on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange, arrived on the scene. By 2011, a Racing SA census listed 15 160 employees because of the number of racetracks sold and breeding farms closed.

According to the union, one of the major reasons for this decline was the “vice-like grip” exercised on horse racing by Jooste through his Phumela vehicle. Since it is estimated that Jooste owns and has in training, more than 200 race horses through his Mayfair Speculators company, he obvious has a great deal of influence.

As a result, the PSA last month attempted to put pressure on the National Horseracing Authority of Southern Africa (NHA) to act against Jooste and Mayfair. However, the NHA pointed out that Jooste had not been criminally charged, but that because of “media speculation” it had “requested clarity from Mayfair Speculators”.

“Not good enough,” says the union. “And we don’t think it is right that Jooste should be able to flaunt his wealth at the Met when so many workers have suffered,” says Federation of Unions general secretary, Dennis George.

He and Fredericks last Friday led a PSA delegation to the Steinhoff headquarters in Stellenbosch where they obtained documents relating to the financial and administrative dealings of the company. When the PSA demanded “full disclosure” from the company last month, there was an attempt to fob the union off on the grounds that it was not a shareholder.

“But we got everything we wanted,” says Maepa. And some of the documents he says, reveal that the government owned Public Investment Corporation (PIC) that administers public sector workers’ funds, “failed to play an oversight  role in Steinhoff”.

This adds strength to the union’s demand that finance minister Malusi Gigaba conducts a transparent forensic audit of investments made by the PIC. Pubic sector workers are concerned that their pension money may also have been directed into “politically motivated” investments.

This successful move by the PSA came at the same time that the role of the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) and its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, was justly commended for forcing the hand of the National Prosecuting Authority to act on fraud, theft, corruption and money laundering related to electricity utility Eskom and to Transnet.

Late last year, Saftu threatened court action on these issues that involve the Gupta brothers and President Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane. The pressure apparently paid off. Saftu also let it be known that it was again preparing to go to court to have the Eskom board declared as delinquent when last week government acted.

These two instances reveal the important role unions can — and should — play to act proactively to challenge a system that encourages rampant profiteering and allows the rich and powerful to bribe and bully organs of the state to do their bidding. It was good news, especially coming at a time when that annual carnival of subtle bulling and bribing, the World Economic Forum (WEF), got underway in the snowbound Swiss resort of Davos.

This yearly gathering of a private club comprising 1 000 of the world’s richest chief executives hosted all the usual suspects under the slogan: “Creating a shared future in a fractured world”. The implication that the toiling masses of the world have anything in common with 1 000 billionaire bosses reeks of hypocrisy.

The WEF sums up a reality the labour movement is slowly starting to deal with and the actions of Saftu and the PSA have provided a small beginning to what may one day become a democratic groundswell, a true “peoples’ tsunami”. However, there is still a very long way to go.