Time for brief respite: 2019 is coming

Posted on December 15, 2018


With 16,000 announced job losses in the past quarter, the SA Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) rudderless amid much mud-slinging and with pending court action regarding the claimed pillage of government pensioner funds, the coming period in South African hardly looks like “the season to be jolly”. At best, certainly for the labour movement, it may perhaps be seen as a brief interlude, a time to catch breath and gird loins for the coming struggles.

And this is not a peculiarly South African phenomenon: the tills of the towns throughout Christendom are unlikely to ring so merrily in the run-up to December 25 and beyond. It is an environment which may favour end-of-the-world and Armageddon preachers as the ongoing economic crisis continues to sow havoc.

Almost unnoticed will be the fact that many of the gifts bought as part of the commercialised celebration will have been produced not only by sweated labour, but also, increasingly, by no human labour at all. Such has been the rapid advance of the job shedding digital revolution.

Overall, therefore, there are few expectations that 2019 will be anything but rough sailing for much of humanity. But, on the local front, there is still some hope that there will be greater clarity in several areas of concern. In the case of the SABC and its collapsed board, something will have to be done before the end of next month and before parliament resumes on February 8.

However, it has become obvious that everything is not clear-cut: President Cyril Ramaphosa, although he had the opportunity to ask resigning members of the generally highly regarded SABC board to serve their three-month notice periods, did not. He also did not apparently notify the resigning members of his decision, merely announcing publicly that their resignations had been accepted.

In so doing, Ramaphosa collapsed the board in what has been widely seen as a move by the governing ANC to regain control of a public broadcaster that has become — legally at least — perhaps the most independent broadcaster the world. Two recent court judgements have upheld this fact.

But politicians, like kings and emperors of old, often arrogantly assume to themselves powers and positions they do not either factually, legally or morally posses. This is sometimes a sign of desperation; of concern that power and privilege may be slipping away, especially when elections loom.

But when trade unions, as proclaimed champions of workers’ rights and democracy, ally themselves with such behaviour, they do themselves no favours. Opportunism is no substitute for principle.

Unfortunately, such behaviour by union officials is not uncommon and has featured, especially in recent weeks, as one of the sideshows to the messy manoeuvring at the SABC. That ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams were out of order when they announced instructions to the board of the public broadcaster is now generally accepted.

But not, apparently, by Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) general secretary, Aubrey Tshabalala as he tried to promote to centre stage the issue of jobs and job losses. He stated flatly that because “ministers” had announced no job losses at the public broadcaster, there would be none. The image created was of a union and government united in the protection of jobs.

Yet job losses, then or later, were not the issue. As another, slightly bigger, union at the SABC, the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media & Allied Workers’ Union (Bemawu) noted correctly: it was the government that was to blame for the mess in not providing a requested guarantee for a R3 billion loan to enable restructuring.

With an election looming, it seems likely that unions affiliated to Cosatu and in alliance with the ANC, will be under pressure to at least not oppose government. This seems to be the case with the National Education Health & Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) that has not joined the condemnation of the effective write-off of R7.4 billion of government employee pension fund (GEPF) investments.

The Fedusa-affiliated PSA (Public Servants Association) has been vocal in demanding to know how, when and by whom various investments were made. The union has also taken matters to court, demanding a review of the actuarial values of the massive, R1.8 trillion government pension fund. A Promotion of Access to Information request has also been lodged.

Earlier this month, in its annual report to parliament, the GEPF admitted to the R7.4 billion loss, the bulk of it in the collapse of the Steinhoff empire. Also written down was some R1.2 billion controversially invested in the purchase of the Independent Newspapers group.

Compounding union concerns was the admission that the government-owned Public Investment Corporation (PIC) had invested R4.3 billion of GEPF funds in Ayo technologies, paying R43 per share. The shares were widely assessed at the time as worth R23 and it was subsequently reported that some had traded as low as R1.50.

Ayo is linked to the Sekunjalo group controlled by Iqbal Survé whose claims about aspects of profitability may prove as fictitious as his widely lauded biography.  Although Survé claims his newspaper chain — the largest English language group in the country — has been profitable and going from strength to strength, the PIC admits that the company failed to meet agreed interest payments in August.

Noting the write-offs, PSA manager Leon Gilbert admitted “deep concern”.  “All stakeholders with a material interest should know how their money is used,” he said. And while nothing has so far been forthcoming, the union expects to have answers in the new year.

In the meantime, union members are fearful that the cash-strapped government is seeing the GEPF as a “piggy bank”. When news of unlisted “social responsibility” investments by the PIC surfaced some two years ago, PSA shop stewards were warned that there could be “sticky fingers in the till”.

The hope now is that once everything is out in the open, any wrongdoing will be stopped. It would be, as one union member put it: “A welcome, late Christmas present.”

And waiting for a long-delayed present are the surviving Midrand municipal workers, sacked 24 years ago following a strike about claimed official corruption. A forensic report dealing with this and claims that worker pensions were not paid is scheduled to be tabled before year end.

“It will be the best Christmas present ever. Justice will be done,” said worker convenor Stena Molepo.

Clearly, despite the generally gloomy prognosis, there is still hope and, coupled with clarity and determination, a better world is still possible.

And with that thought, I wish you all a peaceful holiday period as we ready ourselves for the rigours of the coming — South African election — year.