INSIDE LABOUR: After Marikana, what really changed?

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In 2010, as he was reaching the end of his days, Henry Makgothi, former treason trialist and former deputy secretary general of the ANC, confided sadly: "I fear the wheels are coming off."

He was referring to the apparent inability of the vehicle of government to act fairly and decisively, as nepotism and consequent incompetence helped create conditions in which the corrosion of corruption could thrive.

This week, the sixth anniversary of the Marikana massacre, it became quite evident that some of the wheels may indeed have come off, although police minister Bheki Cele seems to be putting in a stout effort to replace the wheel of justice.

But, as with other events this week, his announcement of a series of arrests of serving police officers for involvement in serious crimes, will probably be seen as too little, too late.

In any event, the announcement of the arrests was eclipsed by the release on Wednesday of a new, independent report on what happened near Lonmin’s Marikana mine on August 16, 2012, when 34 striking miners were gunned down. The report, by researcher David Bruce, vindicates the evidence presented in the documentary film, Miners Shot Down, and in the book, Murder at a Small Koppie, by Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Greg Marinovich.

It was this shocking incident — condemned again this week by numerous legal and civic dignitaries — that severely dislocated the labour wheel that had provided much of the government’s solid traction.

The leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), then headed by Senzeni Zokwana, now minister of agriculture, were seen to be acting as effective line management for Lonmin.

One result was that a haemorrhage of NUM members began, with some seeking to join the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), others leaving the union movement, but with the major beneficiary being the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), then still affiliated to the National Council of Trade Unions.

Two years later, Numsa was expelled from Cosatu, one of the ostensible reasons being the "poaching" of members from other Cosatu-affiliated unions. The Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) followed Numsa into the newly-formed SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) headed by the expelled former general secretary of Cosatu, Zwelinzima Vavi, where the highly respected former Cosatu spokesperson, Patrick Craven, now operates.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that government should attempt — with an election only months away — to provide concessions to halt any further loss of traction.

And so there was the announcement by trade and industry minister Rob Davies that the duty on imported sugar would be increased by $114 a ton to $680, which is $200 less than the industry claims it needs when facing what Davies admits is "a surge of imports".

There was also the announcement that a list of additional items to be zero-rated for value added tax (VAT) was to go to Parliament. This followed the outcry over the 1% increase in the VAT rate in April.

The advisory panel noted that this would save the great majority of poor households R2.8 billion.

However, the unions calculate that the increase will bring in more than R3bn — and chicken, the major source of meat protein for poor households, is not included. As Fawu general secretary, Katishi Masemola points out, chicken is the largest selling grocery item and one of the major sources of VAT. This means, he says, the "the poor will again suffer most".

And with an election in the offing, government may also be unwilling to stop the import of cut-price, often heavily subsidised chicken flooding into South Africa from countries such as Brazil. A rise in the price could have an adverse effect on the support for the government from much of its traditional constituency.

The government's standard answer is that there is no money. It is certainly caught, stalled between a rock and a hard place largely of its own making. And last week government proceeded to make matters worse for itself with the announced intention to shed 30 000 public sector jobs in the next three years.

But, as protestors pointed out in a march on the Treasury offices in Pretoria on Tuesday, organised by Fawu, money does exist. The march, which featured demands to stop the dumping of sugar and chicken, focused primarily on the massive loss of revenue because of the illicit tobacco trade.

Unions across the board have also pointed out that the fiscus tank is not yet empty; that billions of rands still exist in budget allocations; that annually, millions are returned unspent, while more seems to be lost to ongoing corruption.

For all the fragmentation and sometime animosity, the unions and their federations are united in demanding that job retention and creation be prioritised. Failure to do so could result in the government finding itself deserted by the entire labour movement.

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