Inside Labour | Union members must drive change, in light of a political elite that is out of touch

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Delegates during the nomination session for  the top six candidates at the ANC national elective conference at Nasrec in 2017. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla
Delegates during the nomination session for the top six candidates at the ANC national elective conference at Nasrec in 2017. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla


The national – and, to some degree, international – focus this weekend will be on Nasrec and the pending survival or demise of Cyril Ramaphosa as president of the governing ANC and of South Africa.

But, whatever the outcome, it will not matter to the millions of women, men and even more children, especially in informal settlements and rural areas, who are clinging to life in circumstances that are becoming harsher by the day.

More murk and mystery or even revelations of sinister security service skulduggery may emerge at the weekend and, if it does, I hear much of it may seem more akin to the bumbling of an Austin Powers than to the slick operations of a James Bond.

Whatever form, because although the machinations of this section of the political elite will no doubt cause some frisson of excitement among opposition factions and the commentariat, it will hardly stir the masses.

Not that the masses are not in a potentially explosive mood. Disillusionment, alienation, demoralisation and apathy have long produced an undercurrent of seething anger.

This is evident and most commonly noted in radio traffic reports of disruptions to roadways caused by blockades, stonings and marches. These are regular yet uncoordinated actions; spontaneous eruptions.

Some among the downtrodden, having given up hope in the here and now, have turned to the mushrooming merchants of salvation who, for tithes and fees, promise what the legendary trade unionist Joe Hill called “pie in the sky, by and by”.

READ: Viral photo fact check: claims of vote buying at ANC conference

However, there are also opportunist elements in the political sphere who may – as they have in the past – provide the triggers for a release of this anger that, courtesy of social media, can very rapidly spread and be massively damaging.

But there is another, although currently waning, countervailing force – the union movement. It provided the impetus and then much of the glue that held together the tide of township rebellion that reached its peak in the mid-1980s.

This grew, essentially from Pinetown in 1973, from the work of small groups of worker activists and students into a formidable and potentially highly democratic force.

The scaffolding of a democratic organisation still exists and could again come into play; not to follow, but perhaps to provide the lead to various groups and movements that have emerged, claiming to seek a new, more collective, way forward.

Although trade unionism in South Africa is today fragmented and, especially among the larger unions, bureaucratically controlled, awareness of a culture of democratic shop floor organisation persists.

It is this that has often led to internal battles resulting in suspensions, expulsions and the formation of a number of smaller breakaway unions.

This fragmentation has initially weakened the movement, but it may also contain within it the seeds of necessary renewal. Many younger workers, for example, are aware of and oppose the now clearly faltering “conveyor belt” from union bureaucracy to Parliament, ministerial posts and then on to big business directorships. They want a new way forward.

So too do most public sector workers who tend, for the most part, to be organised into two of the biggest unions in the country, the Public Servants Association (PSA) and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union.

They and smaller unions in the sector were denied a negotiated pay rise and then had a well-below inflation increase of 3% unilaterally imposed on them last month.

Government now proposes bargaining council negotiations in February to discuss a pay and conditions deal for next year. The unions, across the board, are opposed to this, pointing out that a pay imposition undermines the very concept of collective bargaining. And talks about this year’s pay deal have not yet been concluded.

READ: 'Political animals, it's in their nature to hold different views' – Mabe

As this column has already mentioned, government also intends to transfer an existing R1 000 public sector gratuity payment to pensionable salary, thus it is able to claim that an additional 4.5% has been added to the wage offer.

“Meaningless,” says PSA national manager Claude Naicker, “it’s just moving the same money from one pocket to another.”

These union members and others in almost every sector have clearly had enough of a political elite that has apparently lost touch with them and all the other people it is supposed to serve.

Hard times have come and harder times are promised. But these unionists have the practical experience of united action along with an awareness of how unaccountable “leaders” can and do cause harm.

Organisation, based on this background and promoted in both workplaces and communities, can provide the catalyst for a move to a better future for the many, not the few.

That is my hope as I wish us all a better year ahead.

Bell is an editor, broadcaster and writer specialising in political and labour analysis

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