THE UNCOMPROMISING attack on corruption in the governing party by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has the potential to shake up politics in South Africa. The federation recently served notice on President Cyril Ramaphosa that it will withdraw its support for his ANC government if he does not act decisively against corruption.
In a scorching statement, the federation declared, ‘President Ramaphosa will not win the fight against corruption if he continues to be confrontation-averse. He needs to start swinging a big axe if he wants workers to trust and believe in him.’
They also announced a general strike against corruption for 7th October 2020.
The resolute position taken on corruption aligns the federation with the unions organised in the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) and grassroots formations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo.
The fact that organised workers across the two federations and the largest grassroots organisation in the country are uncompromisingly against corruption has important consequences. Chief among these is that it makes it impossible for the kleptocratic faction of the ANC to credibly make the ludicrous claim – as people like Jacob Zuma and Zandile Gumede do – that it somehow represents the poor.
But because Cosatu remains within the ANC (African national Congress), the position taken by the federation also places huge pressure on Ramaphosa, who would not have won the presidency of the ANC without the support of Cosatu, and he will not hold it if he loses Cosatu’s support.
This could well tip the balance within the ruling alliance against the kleptocrats – which is significant because, as has been widely noted, although the kleptocrats have no support in society, they do have support within the ANC.
Cosatu has published a powerful analysis of the changing landscape of unions in South Africa.
‘In recent years, the terrain of trade union politics has been dynamic,’ they say.
‘The strike on the platinum belt in 2012 was driven by workers organised in autonomous strike committees outside of and against the ANC-aligned National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). They had no union affiliation during the strike.
‘But after the massacre at Marikana, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), a rapidly growing and politically independent union, largely displaced NUM from across the platinum belt, and at many other mines too.
‘In late 2014, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) was expelled from Cosatu in response to an uncompromising critique of Zuma’s government, a critique that escalated after the Marikana massacre. Numsa was, and still is, the largest trade union in the country.
‘The rise of Amcu and the expulsion of Numsa dramatically weakened the ANC’s hold on the industrial unions. These developments also marked an important stage in the fracturing of the ANC’s hegemony during the Zuma period.
‘In 2017, the formation of Saftu, with 21 affiliates, split the organised working class into two federations, with Amcu remaining independent.
‘Cosatu, the larger federation, primarily represents government workers such as teachers, police officers, prison warders and so on. Saftu primarily represents industrial workers, but does include workers from other sectors such as the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union, which represents farm workers.
‘These seismic shifts came out of a crisis that had been gestating for years.
‘Trade unionism in South Africa has a had a fluctuating history.
‘There have been powerful black trade unions in South Africa since the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) was formed by dockworkers in Cape Town in 1919 and rapidly spread across the country, and then much of southern Africa.
‘The ICU turned into a social movement, with rural and urban members. By 1927, it had a membership of 100 000. The ICU collapsed in the 1930s as a result of rapid growth, repression and, in the end, a failure to deal with corrupt leaders.
The South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) was formed in Johannesburg in 1955. It was a non-racial trade union coordinating body, and closely aligned with the ANC. But in 1960, following the banning of the major anti-apartheid political organisations after the Sharpeville massacre, Sactu lost an effective presence in South Africa.
‘The trade union movement revived after the Durban strikes of 1973, which were part of a wider Durban movement which also included the emergence of the Black Consciousness movement and figures such as Steve Biko, and Rubin Phillip who went on to become an Anglican bishop, and the engagement of radical academic Rick Turner, and many of his students, with the emerging trade union movement.
‘The unions that emerged after the Durban events were brought together in the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) in Hammanskraal in 1979.
Fosatu was committed to workers’ control in unions and on the shop floor, to the empowerment and education of shop stewards, and to independence from the ANC in exile. For Fosatu, it was important to have an organisation and voice for workers that was not subsumed by the elite-dominated ANC.
‘Fosatu, like the ICU before it, also undertook impressive cultural work. This included choirs, theatre productions and the powerful contribution of worker poet Alfred Temba Qabula.
‘Qabula was from Flagstaff and lived through the Pondo revolt and the massacre on Ingquza hill in 1960. In 1974, he took a job at Dunlop in Durban and joined the Fosatu-affiliated Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu) in 1983. The following year, he began to perform his famous praise poem, Izibongo zika Fosatu.’
- Meanwhile in America the United Farm Workers (UFW) is working around the clock to assist farm workers already dealing with repercussions from the pandemic and a dangerous heat wave. Now with the recent wildfires, the danger is escalating.
The union says: ‘Cal/OSHA (Californian health and safety legislation) is supposed to be protecting the workers, but according to what we are hearing, many workers just aren’t protected.
‘Legislation passed last year mandates the grower to provide N95 or equivalent masks if the Air Quality Index is over 150. Sadly, we are hearing again and again of cases where this just isn’t happening.’
According to a poll of farm workers the UFW conducted three days ago, 84% of farm workers have not been given N95 masks by their employers.
Antonia, a Watsonville strawberry picker, told the press her employers ‘do not provide any of the workers with masks, gloves or other protective equipment, which is a violation of California law, according to Cal/OSHA officials.’
The UFW says it is ‘reaching out to our union growers to ensure they are acting to protect union members – even if it means going above and beyond legal requirements.
‘At contract companies, we are hearing reports of N95 masks being distributed or work being halted.
‘We also regularly communicate with tens of thousands of farm workers, most of them non-union, and we are enlisting the help of workers and supporters to find and report the locations of violations.
‘We’ve secured 50,000 N95 masks and will be distributing them – through our organisers and local groups in fire-affected areas – to the workers who need them most.
‘We should NOT have to be doing this. It’s the employers’ obligation, and it’s Cal/OSHA’s job to make sure they do it.
‘Cal/OSHA is publicising what the law is – but that’s not enough. They need to be proactively in the fields making sure that the necessary protective gear makes it to the workers.
‘Cal/OSHA’s inaction is putting the workers in grave danger.’