So much talk, so little sense

Posted on May 4, 2018


South Africa has experienced a veritable cascade of words from public platforms over recent weeks — not least on May Day — that ostensibly dealt with such critical issues as land expropriation, the minimum wage, labour laws and union unity. Listening to them, it is probably true to say that seldom has so much been said that has contributed so little to any real understanding.

Take what is probably the greatest non-issue of the day: land expropriation. Apparently without anyone referring to the Constitution, the governing ANC at its last congress, called for the expropriation of land without compensation. This was taken up strongly by its aligned union federation, Cosatu, in the wake of the Economic Freedom Fighters pushing the issue to the forefront.

But, as Professor Ruth Hall and numerous other specialists have noted: this matter is already covered by Section 25 of the Bill of Rights. Shortly before he died, in December 2012, the late chief justice, Arthur Chaskalson made this point and noted that “nowhere in the Constitution will you find reference to willing buyer, willing seller”.

This puts the ANC and Cosatu on the spot, because, from 1996 onwards, the government introduced the willing buyer, willing seller concept — and paid out some R64 billion to buy property from what were, perhaps in most cases, the previous beneficiaries of apartheid largesse. Now, at considerable expense, a parliamentary task team is set to travel the country to asses the situation.

Unmentioned is the fact that the only land tenure situation in need of assessment is that anomaly in an egalitarian constitutional democracy: tribal trust land. This is land held and administered, sometimes in feudal ways, by traditional leaders whose very positions were sometimes created by previous apartheid and colonial regimes.

Whether a government that has so far done nothing to alter the territorial and geographic legacy of apartheid will tackle this thorny issue is moot. In the meantime, courtesy of geographic apartheid, most workers have to spend an inordinate amount of income on transport to and from townships to work and back.

In this environment, the minimum wage was initially introduced as a monthly payment of R3 500. However, it soon emerged that this was at the top level of a wage scale from R11 to R20 an hour. And only for full-time, 40-hour a week employees would the top hourly rate amount to nearly R3 500.

Under the proposed new regime, the minimum wage for domestic workers will be R15 an hour. However, the existing minimum wage, set by government for domestic workers in main urban areas is already R15.28 an hour. But such workers in other areas would benefit since their current rate is R13.05 an hour.

It is now proposed that farm workers gain an extra R1.75 an hour on their already established R16.25 an hour. And while they do not generally have heavy transport costs, they are liable for rent and service costs to the employer for wich there is often little oversight.

In his May Day address, President Cyril Ramaphosa agreed this was not adequate. But, he said, it was a start. It would certainly benefit the estimated 6 million workers who today earn less than this. He could have added that this applies to many workers in McDonalds, the fast food chain he owns.

However, his main message was political: only through the alliance led by the ANC would more jobs be created and poverty vanquished. The maintenance of the governing alliance was also the theme adopted by Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini. Yet the very existence of this alliance is the prime cause for the fragmentation in Cosatu.

This, to use a cliché, is the elephant in the room, a reality ignored. It enabled Dlamini to state that the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), expelled from Cosatu, would be “welcome back with open arms”. All Numsa had to agree to do was to stop recruiting “in other sectors”, the implication being that this was the reason for the rift.

But it was Numsa’s decision to stop supporting the ANC, effectively leaving the alliance, that led to the expulsion. With the National Union of Mineworkers now apparently planning to debate a similar withdrawal at its mid-year conference, the elephant has grown even larger.

What is becoming clear is that members of Cosatu affiliated unions are increasingly realising that the “broad church” of capital and labour promoted by the ANC leadership is unworkable; that the interests of employers and employees are not the same; that by being part of this alliance, worker interests have been secondary.

It has taken time since the first strong contradictions appeared in 1996 when the combined labour movement’s macro-economic policy proposals were ignored. Now, with jobless growth and an ongoing economic crisis, there are proposals to introduce compulsory arbitration to resolve strikes that are “intractable, violent or may cause local or national crises”.

To many trade unionists, this proposal is an invitation to employers to drag out disputes and create crisis situations. In any event, who decides when a strike is intractable or may cause a crisis? That there is too little openness and honest discussion about the real issues seems to be a real crisis right now.