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Diversity in trade unions should be celebrated

04 September 2012, 10:49

In the wake of the Marikana Mine tragedy, I am reminded of what German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852):"Hegel remarks somewhere that history tends to repeat itself. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

The events that characterised our discourse, engagements and relationships in the run up to Polokwane ought to have served as a lesson on how not to conduct ourselves in a campaign for leadership. Sadly, this appears to have been yet another lost opportunity and we are seeing a repeat, event by event, of the same vulgarity in public discourse, lack of self- respect and of others, purges of opponents, subversion of organisational democratic processes etc.  In essence, we are seeing history repeating itself again. The sad thing is that there is nothing farcical about it all.

Take the emergence of the two splinter unions that are in the news recently, for example. Not much is said about the fact that these splinters are the products of disgruntled workers and union leaders who have been purged or were about to be. The Association of Mining and Construction Union (AMCU)’s formation resulted from the 1st wave of purges that happened in the run up to the ANC’s Polokwane conference, whilst the National Transport and Allied Workers’ Union’s (NATAWU)birth is, in part, due to differences over the leadership preferences in the run up to Mangaung. Again, the internecine madness that has become a feature of our lives each five years has claimed its first set of casualties and many more are still to come.

I argue that the genesis of the tragedy at Marikana and the events leading up to it, can be put squarely at the door of the scorched earth politics that characterised our body politic in the run up to Polokwane. The purge of opponents, perceived or real, gave rise to a plethora of disgruntled groups that span the length and breadth of our country and cutting across all formations of the democratic movement.

At the heart of it all is the lingering intolerance of differing views, not politics or ideology.  The movement that once saw diversity as strength now seems unable to tolerate it. If only the disagreements, whatever they may be, can be seen as mere disagreements amongst comrades, and cease to turn comrades into enemies, then, this heroic movement of workers, COSATU can stem the tide of purges, that has resulted in many capable trade union leaders leaving the movement on their own , purged or isolated.

Back to the Marikana issue!

I was asked to express a view about why the trade union movement, COSATU and NUM in particular, could not anticipate and deal effectively with what appear to have been a festering sore for some time amongst workers in the Rustenburg region.

 I used a Sesotho expression which goes like this; “okeke oa pana mabelete osena motsoarateu, mme oa lebella ho khatha tema, oa lema tsimo oaba oa e qeta..” it loses meaning in translation, but I used  the metaphor of a span of oxen to point out that if you are ploughing a field using an experienced span of oxen, you are likely to do a perfect job and do it quickly, whereas if you use inexperienced oxen, you are unlikely to finish the job, let alone do a perfect job.

How this applies to the issue at hand is in relation to the exodus of experienced shop stewards, who have either moved on or have accepted management roles and the fact that many young shop stewards lack the experience needed to deal with the increasingly complex shop floor issues, without the support of union leaders or officials. To allow this to happen is akin to ploughing a field with a span of young oxen, unused to the yoke, and still expect to plough perfectly.

I also used another Sesotho expression to explain the apparent inaction by the Cosatu leadership, even when it is clear that for one reason or the other, the affiliate is unable to deal with a situation that can potentially result in a split. I used the expression echoed in colonial Basutoland, at the height of the liretlo, so called medicinal murders (muti murders)  in the 1950’s and used by Makalo Bennett Khaketla in some of his extensive works of Sesotho literature, he said; “ Marena a tšaba ho faoloa!’ (Literally meaning; the chiefs are afraid of being castrated), explaining the apparent inability of the chiefs to support Basotho people in their struggle against colonial rule at the time. I repeated this expression absent-mindedly and realised that my point was not understood.

Again, I am using the metaphor, not the literal meaning of this expression. Being afraid of castration is a state of paralysis, of inaction even when there is evidence that action is needed. It is also about being afraid to stand up against injustice or stand up in support of a worthy course because you are compromised and your detractors may use it against you.

In his research paper presented at the African Studies Seminar, University of Natal, Durban, 21 April 2004; and at the University of Pretoria Interdisciplinary Seminar, 22 April 2004, Titled; Medicine Murder in Colonial Lesotho; The Anatomy of a Moral Crisis, Colin Murray details the context in which the phenomenon of liretlo was allowed to fester and the suspicions that the Colonial Administration knew of the involvement of some of the chiefs, but chose to prosecute only those chiefs apparently opposed to regent ’Mantšebo, who was viewed as a puppet of the colonialists.

The inaction of Chiefs, paralysed by the fear that even they, the symbols of the authority of Her Majesty, the Queen of England, were not safe as some of them were involved in liretlo, coupled with the selective application of justice, gave rise to the expression; the chiefs are afraid of being castrated. Can we not correctly point out, even today, that the chiefs are afraid of being castrated?

Can we not claim that the dirty battles for succession that we experience mirrors, in exact terms the battle between the supporters of Bereng Griffith Lerotholi, who expected to be elected Paramount Chief upon the death of his father, Griffiths Lerotholi, but was overlooked in favour of his half-brother, Seeiso, on the one hand and those of regent ’Mantšebo, who acted as Paramount Chief upon the death of her husband Seeiso, on the other, even though the context is not exactly the same?

Can we not claim that the use of state institutions to settle political scores in South Africa is as rife as when regent ’Mantšebo apparently used the colonial justice system to edge out her rival to the throne, Bereng Griffiths Lerotholi? Ironically, ’Mantšebo’s infant son, on whose behalf she was regent, was named after Bereng.

What are we to say about the neglect of pertinent issues such as service to members, leaving shop stewards to their own devices to face powerful company executives, without the support of their leaders? What are we to make of the COSATU leadership’s inability to intervene? Is this not due to being afraid to offend the powerful faction in the affiliate, thus losing support in a crucial election year? Is this not tantamount to the Chiefs being afraid of castration?

Can we not claim that the absence of a consistent and coherent training of shop stewards, the absence of a cohesive transformation programme that will improve the living conditions in mining communities and deal with the migrant labour system are due to the fact that the chiefs are afraid?

Is the time not ripe to call for a different, non factional form of trade unionism? Is it not time to call for the trade union movement to remove itself from internal ANC politics and start giving more focus to the complex and serious problems facing workers today, such as unemployment, rising food prices, rampant poverty etc.?

This does not in amount to a call for a retreat to narrow workerism, nor is it meant to suggest that the trade union movement must be apolitical and devoid of any ideological grounding. It is a suggestion that the trade union movement must be non-factional in its outlook and approach to the politics of the day, whilst maintaining a firm ideological and political outlook

There can be no denying that factionalism has been by far the most divisive phenomena in the trade union movement over the past ten years. It is time to stop giving lip service to the unity of workers and start acting in a manner that achieves it.

It’s not too late!

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