The political voice labour must find

Posted on November 5, 2019


(First published in City Press, November 3)

The modern and militant South African labour movement, once to the
forefront of the political struggle for social and economic transformation, has
still not found a united and coherent political role for itself in the post 1994
dispensation. Contradictions abound, within a fragmented movement that is
weaker both in terms of numbers and organisational capacity than it
was, even a decade ago.

According to the registrar of trade unions, there are now five labour
federations and 207 registered trade unions — an increase of 17 over the
past year — with a total membership of some 3.8 million workers. If
agricultural, forestry and domestic workers are taken into account, this
would barely constitute 20% of the workforce which, according to Stats SA,
has a less than 60% participation rate.

That this is a crisis for trade unionism has been admitted across the board,
often along with calls to “go back to basics”. But, as with much of the debate,
especially over the past 23 years, about which way forward, the basics are
seldom defined with any clarity, amid much radical rhetoric and sloganising.

Yet, in this past week, the quarterly Labour Force Survey has revealed that, year-on-year there are now 524 000 more jobless workers; also that the more accurate “expanded” definition of unemployment is now 38.5%. In other words, even officially, nearly four out of every ten workers is jobless.

At the same time, automation, the central employment threat of the digital, or so-called fourth industrial revolution, continues apace. Yet few people in government — and not only deputy president David Mabuza — seem to understand what this 21st Century march of technology means.

Even more tragically, perhaps, the labour movement is in much the same boat, its analysis and the tactics flowing from this embedded in an earlier era. Yet now should be the time for the unions to be putting forward clear ideas about how to ensure that the great technological advances are used to the benefit of the many and not left to further enrich the few.

The labour movement is capable of such action. In 1996, for example, the combined movement put forward to government a sensible, macro-economic programme based on the redistribution of wealth leading to economic growth.

This programme was the antithesis of the growth first, “trickle down” theories proposed by business and promoted by government ever since 1996. Proposals included public ownership, board level participation and a progressive tax regime along with nationalisation as one mechanism to achieve an egalitarian goal.

Although based on the work of the ANC’s own Macro Economic Research Group whose proposals had been discarded without debate in 1993, the labour movement’s policy outline was simply ignored. Instead, government produced its Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) project, described by one economist as a “cascade of improbabilities”.

GEAR was also derided by Cosatu and the SA Communist Party as the “1996 class project” while both remained within the ANC-led alliance. But they blamed President Thabo Mbeki for promoting GEAR and, in response, launched the “Zuma tsunami” that brought into being President Jacob Zuma and ten years of state capture chaos.

Yet trade unions, for all their relative weakness today, still wield massive potential power. As such, they could, especially if united, play a pivotal role in not only protecting, but extending, democracy.

However, given ideological squabbles and widespread unwillingness to face the technological realities of 21st Century, unity, even at the tentative level seen in 1996, seems unlikely. But unless awareness sets in and appropriate action follows, the labour movement may find that it is becoming increasingly less relevant.