The democratic centralist curse

Posted on April 30, 2018


First published in City Press, South Africa on 29.04.2018

Democratic centralism, one of the most abused concepts within the South African political and labour arena, played an ironic part this week in Wednesday’s strike called by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu). This because the three union federations represented at the tripartite National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) signed off, without consulting all members, on deals that are being protested about.

This sort of “top-down” decision making where elected officials assume the authority of their constituencies is usually described, within much of the labour movement and in the ANC, as democratic centralism. However, it would better be described as bureaucratic or centralised democracy.

The three federations, Cosatu, the Federation of Unions (Fedusa) and the National Council (Nactu) agreed not only to the controversial national minimum wage of up to R20 an hour, but also to a series of amendments to the labour laws. These amendments are a prime focus of worker concern.

As a result, Saftu was able to capitalise on the fact that it is the only federation opposing these amendments. The implication is that, even had the federation been a member of Nedlac, it would not have agreed to either the minimum wage or the labour law amendments.

This gave Saftu the opportunity to call on all workers, irrespective of affiliation, to join a strike “to promote or defend socio-economic interests of workers”. It amounted to a direct challenge to the other federations and was an obvious attempt to wean members away from unions affiliated to, especially, Cosatu and Fedusa.

Unsurprisingly, Cosatu and Fedusa slammed the Saftu strike call as “grandstanding” and fundamentally meaningless. They have also noted that Saftu is not a Nedlac member. However Saftu has applied to join the tripartite body, but the application has been opposed by the other federations.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of blocking Saftu’s membership of Nedlac, the new federation has clearly put the the others onto the back foot. They are having to react to an accusation that they “sold out” on the minimum wage and opened the way to undermine collective bargaining.

It is widely known within the labour movement that Cosatu, two years and more ago, was demanding a minimum wage of R4 500 a month as bare subsistence. The agreement now, at R20 an hour, is for R3 500 a month for full-time employees.

While it is true that perhaps 6 million workers now earn less that R3 500 a month, the translation to R20 a hour, coupled with proposed labour law changes, could open up the prospect of more “zero hours” employment. This means workers being regarded as self employed and being hired — presumably at R20 an hour — for no set periods.

Such situations are already a feature of our labour landscape with workers waiting to be picked up or called for a day a week or whatever for paid employment. In countries such as Britain this even applies to lecturers at universities.

Saftu’s action has at least opened up debate on these issues. But it has also raised the vital question of union democracy and worker control. For all the frequent protestations that unions are “worker controlled”, this is seldom the case.

Under the cover of democratic centralism, bureaucracy rules. This is generally managed by insisting on “the right to manage” and by controlling information while providing patronage that is often funded by income from investment companies.

Hopefully, the current disputes within the unions and their federations will move beyond a destructive slanging match and into serious consideration of the democratic reforms need throughout the labour movement.