Unions and an out of touch elite

Posted on December 19, 2022


(Pre-ANC conference copy published in City Press 18/12/2022; update [below] on Fin24 19/12/2022)

The national — and, to some degree, international — focus this past weekend has been on Nasrec and the now established survival but potential demise of Cyril Ramaphosa as president of the governing ANC and of South Africa.  But despite the outcome, it will not matter to the millions of women, men and even more children, especially in informal settlements and rural areas who are clinging to life in circumstances that are becoming ever more harsh.

More murk and mystery or even revelations of sinister security service skullduggery may emerge in the aftermath, and, if it does, I hear much of it may seem more akin to the bumbling of Austin Powers than to the slick operations of James Bond.  Whatever, because although the machinations of this section of the political elite will no doubt cause some frisson of excitement among opposition factions and the commentariat, it will hardly stir the masses.

Not that the masses are not in potentially explosive mood.  Disillusionment, alienation, demoralisation and apathy have long ago produced an undercurrent of seething anger.  This is evident and most commonly noted in radio traffic reports of disruptions to roadways caused by blockades, stonings and marches.  These are regular, yet unco-ordinated actions;  spontaneous eruptions.

Some among the downtrodden, having given up hope in the here and now have turned to the mushrooming merchants of salvation who, for tithes and fees, promise what the legendary trade unionist Joe Hill called “pie in the sky, by and by”.  However, there are also opportunist elements in the political sphere who may — as they have in the past — provide the triggers for a release of this anger that, courtesy of social media, can very rapidly spread and be massively damaging.  

But there is another, although currently waning, countervailing force:  the union movement.  It provided the impetus and then much of the glue that held together the tide of township rebellion that reached its peak in the mid 1980s.  This grew, essentially from Pinetown in 1973, from the work of small groups of worker activists and students into a formidable and potentially highly democratic force.

The scaffolding of democratic organisation — at least the knowledge of how to build it — still exists and could again come into play.  Not to follow, but perhaps to provide the lead to various groups and movements that have emerged, claiming to seek a new, more collective, way forward.

Although trade unionism in South Africa is today fragmented and, especially among the larger unions, bureaucratically controlled, awareness of a culture of democratic shopfloor organisation persists.  It is this that has often led to internal battles resulting in suspensions, expulsions and the formation of a number of smaller “breakaway” unions.

This fragmentation has initially weakened the movement, but it may also contain within it the seeds of necessary renewal.  Many younger workers, for example are aware of, and oppose the now clearly faltering “conveyor belt” from union bureaucracy to parliament, ministerial posts and then on to big business directorships.  They want a new way forward.

So too do most public sector workers who tend, for the most part, to be organised into two of the biggest unions in the country, the Public Servants Association (PSA) and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu).  They and smaller unions in the sector were denied a negotiated pay rise and then had a well-below-inflation increase of 3% unilaterally imposed on them last month.  

Government now proposes bargaining council negotiations in February to discuss a 2023 pay and conditions deal.  The unions, across the board, are opposed to this, pointing out that a pay imposition undermines the very concept of collective bargaining.  And talks about this year’s pay deal have not yet been concluded.

As this column has already mentioned, the government also intends to transfer an existing R1,000 public sector gratuity payment to pensionable salary, so being able to claim that an additional 4,5% has been added to the wage offer.  “Meaningless,” says PSA national manager Claude Naicker, “just moving the same money from one pocket to another.”

These union members and others in almost every sector, have clearly had enough of a political elite that has apparently lost touch with them and all the other people it is supposed to serve.  Hard times have come and harder times are promised.  But these unionists have the practical experience of united action along with an awareness of how unaccountable “leaders” can and do cause harm.  Organisation, based on this background, and promoted in both workplaces and communities, can provide the catalyst for a move to a better future for the many, not the few.  

That is my hope as I wish us all a better year ahead.

Posted in: Uncategorized