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South Africa: Inauspicious start to the ANC’s year; COSATU needs to get back to first principles

Patrick Bond, director of the Center for Civil Society and professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, was interviewed by the Real News Network on February 14, 2013. Bond discussed the "resource curse" and the influence of the mining corporations on the ruling African National Congress, in particular the role of former anti-apartheid activist, now mining magnate, Cyril Ramaphosa. A full transcript is available HERE.

By Terry Bell

February 9, 2013 -- Produced for the February 2013 edition of Zambia’s Bulletin & Record, first posted at Terry Bell Writes and with permission at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- It was a not very auspicious start to 2013 for South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC). Not only did a host of unwelcome baggage from the past come tumbling into the new year, but other, new, difficulties also emerged before the year was even a month old.

There was more community unrest, more strikes, new scandals about large-scale spending on ministerial residences, additional evidence of apparent official corruption and the threat of 14,000 or more jobs being lost on the platinum and gold mines. The exchange rate level of the currency also suffered.

It should not have been so, according to the planners of this past centennial year of the continent’s oldest liberation movement. Especially not with a National Development Plan in place promising virtually jobs for all by 2030, and with January 2013 being the start of soccer’s Africa Cup of Nations tournament, hosted by South Africa.

Yet January 2013 provided a more tumultuous kick-off to a new year than had January 2012, when the ANC planned 12 months of celebrations to commemorate the movement’s founding in 1912. A year ago the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), headed by the radical populist, Julius Malema, was causing political storms and an ABZ (Anyone But Zuma) move was getting underway and threatening to wreck the planned highlight of the year, the December elective conference of the ANC. The controversial R70 billion arms deal of 1999, involving Zuma in allegations of corruption, was also subject to a legal demand for an independent inquiry.

However, issue by issue, although sometimes a little messily, these matters seemed to be dealt with. By February last year, for example, the troublesome ANCYL president was clearly on his way out. Malema claimed credit — and not without justification — for helping catapult Zuma to the top post in the ANC, but he had then, while facing accusations of corruption, turned against Zuma. He was finally expelled from the ANC as investigations began into his quite sudden millionaire status, apparently the result of “donations” to his Ratanang Family Trust.

As this new year dawned, Malema was clearly in the political wilderness and complaining that his former friends treated him “like a leper”. He is also protesting that the more than 50 charges of tax evasion, money laundering, corruption and racketeering he now faces, are “politically motivated”

Ironically, it was Malema who was once to the forefront of maintaining that allegations levelled at Zuma about corruption in the arms deal were politically motivated. But before the elective conference, and to the surprise of many observers, Zuma appointed a judicial inquiry into the arms deal and offered to give evidence himself if called on to do so. Court actions were dropped and the matter seemed to have been neatly packaged to finally provide the true facts about the controversial military purchases.

Unstuck

However, just two weeks into this new year, that package came unstuck. A resignation letter from a senior investigator employed by the arms deal inquiry was leaked to the media. Respected lawyer and former acting judge Mokgadi Moabi alleged that the inquiry was being manipulated; that he could no longer, in conscience, remain part of it. The prospect of court actions again arise and there are growing calls for an inquiry into the inquiry.

Serious trouble also continued to flare on the labour front, an apparent ripple effect that began with the wildcat strike in February last year at Impala Platinum (Implats) mines in the North West province. Both management and the ANC-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were caught unawares. At least one miner was killed and more than ten injured before calm was restored by a large police contingent.

However, as the Bulletin & Record has pointed out in previous reports, anger and frustration seethed beneath the apparently tranquil surface. The reality for miners remained unchanged and there seemed to be no attempts to improve matters.

But while the situation on the platinum belt grew increasingly tense, media and general political attention switched to a series of often violent and bitter tussles within various ANC regional and local branches. ABZ factions emerged to suggest one or other candidate to oppose Zuma, and several branches began promoting deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe as a possible successor to lead the ANC.

As it turned out, these sometimes luridly reported battles were essentially side shows. Zuma and his lieutenants very much have control of the party machinery and were able to keep emerging rebellions under control: the elective conference at Mangaung was clearly going to be well stage managed, with Zuma the victor.

Motlanthe, pushed by a powerful grouping in the country’s economic powerhouse province, Gauteng, stood against Zuma and was trounced. Up stepped Cyril Ramaphosa, long-time member of the ANC executive, billionaire businessman and one-time general secretary of NUM, to take the deputy position from Motlanthe and so become virtually an ordained successor to Zuma.

Marikana

It was a neat bit of political packaging, but circumstances affected the content: what is now referred to as the “Marikana moment” of August 16, caused a degree of political contamination. The Lonmin-owned Marikana mine in South Africa’s North West province was the scene of the bloodiest confrontation between police and workers since the transition from apartheid, and one of the bloodiest ever. And Cyril Ramaphosa is a non-executive director of Lonmin.

Some startling evidence — including allegations of police “executions” of wounded miners — is now emerging at a formal inquiry that will continue into March. The inquiry has also heard that, in the days leading up to August 16, Ramaphosa sent emails referring to the need to deal with the “criminality” at Marikana. These followed the deaths of at least 10 people, including two police officers, in clashes around the mine in the week leading up to August 16 when, after a sustained burst of police gunfire, 34 miners lay dead, with more than 100 wounded.

On balance, however, Ramaphosa’s election seems to have received support, especially among the business community. He has now embarked on something of a charm offensive around the country, having announced that he will devote himself to politics and not to business.

But the spectre of Marikana keeps surfacing, in incidents such as the strikes and often violent clashes in the fruit and grape growing regions of the Western Cape. There, many casual and unemployed workers who form the core of local protests hail the Marikana miners for “standing against the might of the bosses and the state”.

These protest have put the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the ANC government very much on the back foot and severely impacted on South Africa’s image. With rating agencies downgrading the country’s debt and the national currency under renewed pressure, the new year has seen frantic efforts to try to contain the public disillusionment and to rally the faithful to support the ANC into its second century.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe summed up the position when he called, in late January, on miners to support — and to stop deserting — NUM. It was the union that had fought for the improvements that existed, he said, and it was the only union to which miners should belong.

He could just as well have substituted "ANC" for "NUM".

Unions: a need to get back to first principles

40 years ago, the modern South African trade union movement arrived on the scene. Its birth was heralded by a wave of strikes in Durban.

By Terry Bell

February 4, 2013 -- Terry Bell Writes, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- On January 31, exactly 40 years ago, the modern South African trade union movement arrived on the scene. Its birth was heralded by a wave of strikes in Durban that had gestated over 22 days from the time 2000 workers at Coronation Brick and Tile downed tools.

These strikes, that culminated in nearly 5000 workers at three major plants declaring a dispute on that fateful day in 1973 were not only to demand better pay and shopfloor conditions; they also had a broad, anti-apartheid, political dimension. And, like the workers' committees that emerged during the recent turmoil on the platinum belt, they had no fixed leadership or bureaucracy.

However, the success of such unity in action meant that this organisational infant soon found its feet, and, as it developed clear identities, it began to articulate many of the demands that today are echoed in areas as diverse as Marikana, Zamdela and the Boland. These demands can be summed up in one word: democracy.

But the democracy the workers demanded and began to practice then went well beyond the veneer of electoral politics, behind which often gross exploitation can continue. They wanted equality of choice, not just the legalistic notion of rich and poor being equal.

Such ideas emerged piecemeal and unevenly, but constituted a major current by 1986 when the newer unions came together as the non-racial Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the Black Consciousness orientated National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU). The federations differed mainly in terms of how to organise in an apartheid state, but shared broadly similar ideas.

Today, four decades on, the South African trade union movement, comprising four federations and several hundred independent unions, is shorn of racial divisiveness and can celebrate substantial legal gains. But it faces perhaps the most critical period in its history.

Numerically and organisationally, although not necessarily financially, organised labour is probably weaker now than even a decade ago. This at a time when the pressure on jobs, wages and conditions is increasingly acute and when many disgruntled trade unionists are mouthing the very demands raised 30 and 40 years ago.

There is now widespread agreement within the South African labour movement that it is in trouble. Although NACTU has been given a membership boost from the mining sector, it has come at a cost to COSATU — and both federations are weaker today than they were a decade ago. The unanimous commitment to unity in a single federation also remains elusive.

The boost to NACTU has come via the affiialition of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). But AMCU’s membership surge has come almost exclusively at the expense of the COSATU-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The turmoil in the mining industry has also seen possibly thousands of trade unionists turning their backs on all unions. In some cases, disgruntled NUM members have also joined, or are trying to join, the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA), opening up long simmering rivalry between two COSATU unions.

It is certainly true, as some disillusioned former unionists complain, that big unions today are big business, with their management structures divorced socially and economically from the memberships. This makes for union bosses rather than leaders.

One consequence has been the emergence of workers' committees in a number of recent disputes. These are committees elected by workers who are opposing not just the bosses and the state, but organised labour as well. This is a manifestation of the “bottom-up concept” that is a fundamental — and all-too often ignored — principle of trade unionism.

Thirty years ago, that principle was quite firmly in place. A COSATU document from 1986 spells out the then newly formed federation’s view: “The workers’ movement must be built on workers’ control ... control over shop stewards, workers’ committees, officials and executives.”

This form of direct democracy was seen by the new unions as providing the template for the labour movement as a whole. And the labour movement, in its turn, it was argued, would provide the example to be followed by society at large.

As a result, those early unionists also extended the principle to the communities in which they lived. Angered at being used, abused, patronised and discarded at will, they demanded the right to have community opinions taken fully into account.

Here there are distinct echoes of Marikana and Zamdela in that the demand was that ordinary working people should have a direct say in how their lives were being run. Significantly, in 1986, the then three-year-old NUM also drew up a Bill of Rights that demanded that miners should “have the right to have a say in the running of the mines — and all future plans”.

Six years later, the COSATU-affiliated National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) proposed that once the ANC became the government and, therefore, a major employer, COSATU should leave the anti-apartheid alliance since workers should “not be in bed with bosses”.

Such calls are again being heard amid a growing mood of grassroots radicalism. It has meant that both unions and mineowners, let alone other employers, are having to consider new approaches. For the unions, this may mean a return to founding principles. For the employers it means trying to stem any such tide of radicalism that could undermine the present system.

Perhaps indicative of the growing new mood is the cynicism expressed about the philanthropic announcement this week by mining tycoon Patrice Motsepe. He said he would annually donate half his family’s assets to be distributed to the poor by religious and traditional leaders.

One of the more diplomatic responses came from NUM spokesperson, Lesiba Seshoka: “This is a good idea, but we should remember that it was marginalised and poor miners who created his wealth; the biggest proportion of this [Motsepe’s philanthropy] should go to them.”

Another unionist noted: “He could have provided better wages and conditions in all the years that the miners made him billions. Instead he spent millions on footballers.” (Motsepe owns the Mamelodi Sundowns soccer team.)

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