South African labor under attack from Pres. Jacob Zuma

by Charlene Smith

rbosch_254President Jacob Zuma’s assiduous building of the A.N.C. especially in rural areas, and among those who seek a path to wealth through government tenders, has been fascinating.

In the past the A.N.C. needed the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) to survive, but that need is diminishing. Cosatu reported to its 2012 Congress, “A.N.C.’s membership has grown over 300 percent … with membership rising from 416,846 members in 2002 to 1,270,053 in January 2012. …The 2012 Cosatu workers survey reveals that over a quarter of Cosatu members surveyed ‘are active in their ANC branch’. This suggests that around half of ANC members are also Cosatu members.”

But Cosatu’s challenge, and indeed that of all unions, is to whom do A.N.C. and union members owe their allegiance? At a time when one in five of those employed work for the state, and where political loyalty is rewarded with tenders and cushy jobs, it is unlikely that the unions hold more power than Zuma, who was the A.N.C.’s wily head of its intelligence services while in exile.

Richard Spoor, an independent labor lawyer who represents miners claims that the “real divide is between rural people and workers, and the middle class. I can’t think of a credible black intellectual that still supports the A.N.C.” But whether intellectuals exert much influence in today’s South Africa is moot. Rural people, traditional in outlook and suspicious of fancy city folk, loud unions, and the educated are the real voting power in South Africa, and Zuma has been wooing them for at least a decade. He is the one they trust, especially in populous KwaZulu Natal.

Cosatu and some of the smaller unions are now focusing their energies on small towns but it is probably too little too late. Cosatu has a union leadership today that likes smart offices, fancy cars, and fine dining in the cities, few will travel the rutted roads to rural areas and sit in mud huts and drink sorghum beer and listen to the long story-telling narratives of rural folk.

Zuma has also tightened the security establishment and brought it directly under his control. One of President Zuma’s bodyguards as just one example, was put in charge of the operational spying structures of the South African Police Service. Brigadier K.B. “Bhoyi” Ngcobo, a senior member of the presidential protection unit, was appointed acting head of crime intelligence. The Mail and Guardian reported that: “Ngcobo’s selection appears to consolidate the stranglehold over police intelligence structures of individuals [with] powerful personal loyalties to Zuma… Zuma named Ngcobo as one of the “echo group” of his protectors, who resisted pressure from “plotters” to inform on him during his time in the political wilderness.”

Zuma also appointed Michael Hulley , his lawyer in corruption cases and the 2006 rape trail in which he was acquitted, as his part-time legal adviser in the presidency. Hulley’s appointment came as the North Gauteng High Court liquidated Aurora Empowerment Systems’ Pamodzi Gold Orkney and Grootvlei mines run by Khulubuse Zuma , the president’s nephew, and Zondwa Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela. They were joint directors with Hulley in Aurora. The parliamentary portfolio committee recommended criminal charges against the three for not paying 5,300 mineworkers for a year and leaving them to starve while forcing them, often at gunpoint, to work. Zuma giving the directors work in the presidency offers them indemnity as long as he retains power.

Spoor says, “The big frustration for Cosatu is that their backing of Zuma has been a disaster. They show this bizarre, sycophantic politicking, then say we’ll protest toll roads, we’ll march against government – you’re either in government or against it, to play it both ways is not working for Cosatu. I don’t see how Cosatu will recover vigor and credibility.”

SAT-000-1131GThe union federation’s credibility has not been helped by it endorsing President Zuma for a second term with careful qualifiers, yet for them not to have endorsed him could have created more trouble than Cosatu presently has the strength to deal with. At present the bulls are pawing the ground and circling, but no one will charge, any attack from either side will be by stealth.

At its March 15, 2013 meeting the labor federation acknowledged: “This Conference is taking place at a time when the labor movement is facing some very serious challenges – both internal and external. Some are self-inflicted, and some are being pursued by our class enemies, to fatally weaken us…In the recent period we have come under sustained attack focused on weakening our affiliates, with the biggest Cosatu affiliate being the primary target…The reason why our enemies found it easy to launch these attacks is because we allowed a situation where our base is organizationally, politically and ideologically weakened.”

Neil Coleman, Cosatu’s Strategies Coordinator who works at the union federation’s Cape Town Parliamentary Office is frank, “We are at a crossroads in a number of respects: our relationship to the ruling party and the state, to society more broadly, in relation to our own membership and our own people. There is an emerging all round crisis.

“The Cosatu general secretary [Zwelinzima Vavi] has said that we are facing serious challenges and the labor movement has to position itself. His favorite example is the Trade Union Council of SA [a white-only, apartheid-supporting union federation. At the time black unions were illegal]. By the time of the 1973 Durban strikes it was very co-opted, unrepresentative of its membership, and being swamped by an emerging militant grass roots movement.” His point is that Cosatu may be facing a similar scenario.

Coleman insists, and Vavi concurs, “Events in 2012 have shaken us to the core. There are debates and tactical differences within the labor movement and its alliance with the A.N.C. about how to move forward. Some of the challenges are a product of our success. N.U.M. is a massive union that has made important gains especially in health and safety, but it has lost the plot in other areas. The fact that Cosatu is able to continue growing is a measure of the quality of the organization, but there are some very serious warning signs. There is a danger of the leadership becoming distant from members in the way they live, where their children go to school, the hospitals they use….”

The benefits of hindsight

So what went wrong with what John Hopkins University sociologist Benjamin Scully says was one of the world’s most influential labor movements? There are three smaller trade union federations than the 1,8 million member Cosatu, there is the Federation of Unions of South Africa with 560,000 members, the National Council of Trade Unions (397,000) and the Confederation of South African Workers’ Unions with 297,000 members. None have the impact of Cosatu, but let’s look back to understand how the future may evolve.

After apartheid there was rapid movement to improve racial and gender ownership and management in businesses. In just five years from 1993 to 1998, seven major labor laws were promulgated, they ranged from two laws about health and safety in 1993, to the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995, the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998 and the Skills Development Act 97 of 1998.

The intent was to create a model economy, one where social justice partnered with bright, economically-skilled and productive workers, but instead disillusionment and resentment is rife. The labor laws, including the constitutional right to strike, have created work for an ever-growing, well-paid and mostly incompetent bureaucracy, conflict in the workplace is common, the four month annual strike season from May to September has broken its banks and labor disputes spill into every month, often violent, always bitter. The economy, once the most powerful on the African continent is lagging.

South Africa needs annual growth of seven percent to combat unemployment but growth is averaging just over two percent, at a time when overall growth across the continent is averaging eight percent. The World Competitiveness Yearbook, published by Switzerland’s Institute of Management Development ranked South African competitiveness at 50 of 59 countries in 2012 . The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2011 cited weak public education, restrictive labor laws, and a poor work ethic as challenges to business in South Africa.

(This is the second in a series examining South Africa and labor)


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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