South Africa: Blame for May Day’s bare whimper

11 May, 2021 — Terry Bell Writes

News & Views by Terry Bell

May Day 2021 has come and gone, without much of a whimper, let alone a bang. And it is the novel coronavirus that is only marginally responsible. Because there would not have been much of a bang even without the pandemic.

The virtual May Day commemoration by Cosatu was streamed from the federation’s headquarters, Cosatu House in Braamfontein. This fact almost certainly saved the federation from the embarrassment of another rally with a relatively low turnout.

It is, of course, a downturn time for trade unions, triggered by the ongoing global economic crisis. But it is a downturn for which the unions themselves have to share the blame. And this applies not only in South Africa, but globally.

Unions and their federations, both national and international, have become intensely bureaucratic, mimicking the corporate structures of the capitalism they theoretically oppose. Many have effectively been incorporated into corporate and state structures and South Africa — perhaps Cosatu in particular — provide excellent examples.

In 1993, for example, the federation turned down a proposal that union pension and provident funds be used to establish a building society/bank to buy up property and provide bonds and rentals for workers. It was put forward as a non-exploitative means of providing a good return on investments that would also encourage the breakdown of the “geography of apartheid”.

But the Cosatu leadership ruled this proposal “too capitalistic”and turned it down. Yet, today, Cosatu and most of its affiliates own investment companies that “play the market” that profits off the backs of workers.

It is also not difficult to argue that Cosatu, via its alliance with the governing ANC, has provided a convenient conveyor belt to political rewards and prominence. Last Saturday — May 1 — siting in the audience at Cosatu House for the virtual screening was labour minister Thulas Nxesi, former general secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers Union.

Nxesi was there in his SA Communist Party regalia since he is also deputy to the chair of the SACP, Senzeni Zokwana. In 2014, Zokwana, the former president of the National Union of Mineworkers, moved from his top job in NUM to become minister of agriculture. This pair, along with former NUM general secretary, Gwede Mantashe, now minister of mines and a central committee member of the SACP, are among the most prominent examples of union leaders who moved seamlessly into the upper echelons of parliamentary politics.

NUM, however, makes for a good case study of how bureaucratic tendencies can be exploited and encouraged by employers. With the co-operation of union officials, bosses can effectively turn trade union shop stewards into effective line managers for the business.

The union demand for “closed shop” single union representation and for full-time officials and shop stewards to be paid by the employer was acceded to. NUM president Zokwana’s substantial salary was paid by a mining company. And full time shop stewards received, in addition to their pay, cars and credit cards. They became, effectively, supervisors for the mining companies.

It was a recipe for disaster concocted jointly by employers and union chiefs. And this arrangement contributed, in 2012, to the Marikana massacre, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the post apartheid era.

So far, there is little evidence that the lessons of the recent past have been learned. And not only in terms of bureaucratic organisation. The unions have clearly still not come to terms with the 21st Century reality of massive job losses that loom because of automation spurred on by the steady advance of artificial intelligence (AI).

They also appear to have forgotten their history of foresight as they concentrate on fighting rearguard battles on job retention and pay rises. These were positions they held to 25 years ago while, at the same time, putting forward concrete proposals for a better way forward for all.

In 1996 it was also the combined labour movement — all then existing federations united — that put forward a macro-economic policy document for the country that, with hindsight, seems positively inspired. It was ignored and its fundamental premise — to put income redistribution before economic growth — was turned on its head by the government with a skimpy set of proposals that largely mimicked those of Big Business. In labourspeak: the time of neo-liberalism had arrived.

That era remains with us and has managed, along with attendant corruption, to place the national economy in a deep and ongoing crisis. But it is workers and, in particular, the working poor, who suffer most while cronies, crooks and assorted capitalists continue to enjoy their pillage, plunder and profit.

In such circumstances, it seems almost indecent to invite the billionaire president of the governing party to be a guest of honour and principal speaker at a union May Day rally. This is when an ironic situation descends into the realm of mundane farce.

Especially considering that May Day stands not only for the demand of working people for an eight-hour day, but for a world of peace, true democracy and equal rights; a world that puts people before profit. As that great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg once wrote: “When better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance, then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honour of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.”

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