Chasms widen as trade unions falter in South Africa

By Charlene Smith

• Exchange rate of R11 to $1 used

JOhannesburg IDP Photographs for BIG MediaIn his first speech as president on May 5, 1994, Nelson Mandela said: “The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come… We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination. ” But today South Africa is a nation more unequal than during apartheid. Millions live in shacks and struggle to survive on $2 a day.

At least one in four South Africans are jobless depending on which statistic you accept, although most agree that forty percent unemployed is closer to reality. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which shares power with the ruling African National Congress and the South African Communist Party reports , “In 2011, half of South African workers earned less than R3,033 ($275.72) a month. African workers earn 23 percent of what white workers earn and women earn 77 percent of what men earn.” They point to a 2010 report by auditors’ Price Waterhouse Cooper on executive pay, which Cosatu claims over-estimated “the wages paid to low paid workers in the South African economy. The Executive Pay Report found the pay gap to be in the order of 250-300 times the lowest paid worker. If we correct the wage of the lowest paid workers, we find that the median executive pay gap ranges from 1,535—1,842 times the wage earned by the lowest paid worker.”

Inequity deepened despite the fact that in the late 1990s and early part of this century South Africa enjoyed the greatest prosperity in more than sixty years. Shielded by rainbow nation hype the rich held the pot of gold close to their chests and did little to improve opportunity or close wage gaps.

South Africa today is a nation of robber barons. Zwelakhe Mankazana, CEO of Aquarius Platinum Investments, and a veteran of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the former military wing of the A.N.C. says: “We devalued the dignity of a noble struggle to develop a smash and grab mentality that has bred violence and intimidation.” South Africa is now one of the most dangerous countries in the world with rampant criminal violence and corruption. Two national police commissioners in a row are in jail, and President Jacob Zuma could face 783 charges of racketeering, fraud, and corruption once he leaves the immunity afforded by the presidency. Undaunted, $28 million of public funds was recently spent on a luxurious home for him and his four wives and 22 children born in wedlock . All of this impacts on how South Africans view the world, their expectations of fair treatment, what they believe is owing to them, and the means to attain it.

And so when in August 2012 police shot dead 38 striking miners and injured 78 at Marikana platinum mine a warning flare shot high across South Africa. Privileged citizens looked up from their evening drinks at pavement cafes or their relentless trawling of Twitter and Facebook, and then looked away. It was a warning that exposed the bitter divisions within unions and the shocking conditions miners live and work under. It also held potentially sinister undertones that lawyers alluded to at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry. Jonny Steinberg, a South African lecturer in African studies at Oxford University, told a London audience “This paramilitary outfit arrived and turned on protesters. That was a policy decision that happened because Zuma allowed it and wanted it to happen.” Steinberg’s view is not unusual, you hear it from sober newspaper editors, wealthy businesspeople, academics, and trade unionists – all of whom form part of the new black elite and who now, or in the past, supped at the same table as Zuma.
Why would Zuma encourage police to use deadly force on miners? The first clue comes from the number of criminal charges Zuma would face at the end of his second term in office – all that the constitution presently allows – if he succeeds, as he probably will, in his presidential bid in 2014. The second comes in the active critiques of Zuma and the government he leads from unions and especially Cosatu leader, Zwelinzima Vavi . The third comes from the fact that unions control millions of workers, if you defuse unions, you limit the ability of groups to organize any significant dissent whether against employers or politicians. And dissent is growing, in their book Who Rules South Africa , Paul Holden and Martin Plaut claim that two million South Africans are involved in some sort of protest each year. Indeed, 2012 had the highest number of protests per month since apartheid.


About Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award winning journalist, broadcaster and documentary film maker. She is the author of 14 published books, including two on Nelson Mandela. Born in South Africa, she has also lived in Japan and Argentina and currently lives and works in Boston as a communications consultant.
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