Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Workers are booing Zuma for the wrong reasons

2017-05-12 09:03
President Jacob Zuma has been jeered by labour unionists and his speech was cancelled after scuffles broke out between his supporters and workers chanting for him to step down at the rally in Bloemfontein. (Khothatso Mokone, AP)

President Jacob Zuma has been jeered by labour unionists and his speech was cancelled after scuffles broke out between his supporters and workers chanting for him to step down at the rally in Bloemfontein. (Khothatso Mokone, AP)

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South African workers in the formal sector are not the typical “working class” Karl Marx had in mind when he referred to a class struggle.

Unlike the Marxist workers who had only chains to lose, South African workers have investments to lose. They own shares in major companies through pension funds.

They are therefore capitalists with stakes in a wide variety of investment platforms locally and internationally. Asset management companies make big business out of workers’ pensions from the private and public sectors.

A recent study by economist Mike Schussler revealed that South Africa was among the top four countries in the world with the largest share of pension fund assets as a percentage of GDP. South Africa comes fourth after Switzerland, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Big private companies, government and state-owned monopoly companies offer generous pension benefits. Sectors such as retail, mining and agriculture are an exception as they still have many workers without benefits.

With this background in mind, it is evident that South African workers and the unions who represent them don’t know how best to fight for their interests.

On May Day, workers booed the under-siege President Jacob Zuma. The booing was an expression of anger because the Cosatu and SACP leadership want him to step down. Zuma’s crime, according to the ANC alliance partners, is that he has divided the alliance and has been captured by the Guptas.

Zuma should have long vacated office. But state capture and divisive leadership shouldn't be the only reasons workers must demand his axing. The primary reason workers should mobilise against Zuma, even if he had not been captured, is that he has gambled with their investments.

Workers lost billions of rands in their investments when Zuma fired Nhlanhla Nene. And they stand to lose more as the impact of credit rating downgrades is felt after he fired Pravin Gordhan.

Workers must link their protests against Zuma or any other target directly to their material interests. It must not be linked to ANC succession battles.

The biggest assets that workers own collectively are pensions. It is through these pensions that workers own a bit of many JSE-listed companies.

The Public Investment Corporation, the government-run asset manager that manages pension funds on behalf of the government employee pension fund, owns huge stakes in big companies.

In the private sector employers deduct pension contributions and transfer them to fund managers who buy shares and invest in other instruments to grow the value of the pensions.

Many workers also benefit from additional pension contributions from employers. So, when political leaders take foolish decisions, such as random reshuffling of finance ministers, it is not only big capitalists whose wealth is affected. It’s the wealth of the small capitalists, the workers, that is also at stake.

The failure of workers to understand their own material interests and to safeguard them should not be limited to their reaction to irresponsible political leadership on the part of Zuma. Even in dealing with private sector companies, workers must not make noise over the slice of bread that has neither butter nor jam.

Workers must know where their bread is buttered. They must realise that they are shareholders in big companies. They are the real bosses. They provide the capital that oils the operations of many companies.

They need to find mechanisms to ensure their interests are represented in decision-making process of the companies in which their pensions are invested. Both public and private sector workers deserve to know on a regular basis where their pensions are invested and how they are performing.

Many employer-subsidised pension schemes give regular updates on the value of members’ funds. But workers are not given the full details. Nor do they have the capacity to understand the extent of the losses they suffer due to either bad political leadership or bad decision-making of management.

When the news headlines refer to billions of rands wiped out on the JSE as a result of an irresponsible Cabinet reshuffle, many workers don’t realise the billions referred to is their money. Sadly, some are made to believe that decline in share prices is good because it proves that the capitalist system is not sustainable.

Some believe that nationalisation would be a good idea. They don't realise that nationalisation would mean expropriation of their own pensions by the state. They must imagine the government nationalising their pension funds and run them the way it runs South African Airways or Petro SA.

Business leaders and workers need to understand that they are not enemies. They are allies whose interests are best served by growing the companies they run with the entrepreneurship of management and the capital provided by worker pension funds.

Workers would be better served by union leaders who are skilled not only in toyi-toying and negotiating for better wages and working conditions. They must also develop skills to look after the wealth of workers.

- Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

Read more on:    public investment corporation  |  workers
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