South Africa: The tortuous road from 1996 to Mangaung

By Terry Bell

December 13, 2012 -- Terry Bell Writes, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- The tortuous road to the governing African National Congress' (ANC) centennial conference at Mangaung ends next week. And, not to put too fine a point on it, much of the country is gatvol [fed up] with the route it has taken and where it has arrived.

Potholed with corruption, meandering in no fixed direction to the profit of cronies, and riddled with damaging scandal, it should long ago have been resurfaced, rebuilt and given a clear destination. But it has remained in place as a national project and, in the process, has pushed into the background the ongoing — and often more subtle — unethical dealings outside of government circles.

In recent years and despite occasional grumbles, the country’s major trade union federation, the congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU), has continued to stumble along that road, praising its supposed promise. The federation was committed to it, especially after declaring, at its congress in 2006, that a “Zuma tsunami” would cure the ills on the road ahead. In the event, the leapfrogghing into power of President Jacob Zuma has proved even more destructive.

Arguably, this road began nearly 17 years ago with the introduction of the government’s Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) framework and trade union resistance to privatisation. Now it will end, most likely with a deviation onto the “National Development” highway designed last year with the ANC's 2010 New Growth Path with its promises to end poverty and unemployment.

In a past littered with broken promises, COSATU and the other labour federations have remained supportive of government’s plans. Some COSATU affiliates have gone further, producing often jargon-ridden statements that slavishly support the political powers that be.

Sadly, for journalists, one such is the Communication Workers’ Union that has journalist members. Another is the tiny Creative Workers’ Union. Both this week supported the ban by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) of a program involving three journalists who were scheduled to discuss the Mangaung conference. All discussions on the topic, it was ruled, “must have the ANC present”.

But not all trade unionists and unions share this perspctive, Far from it. As Media Workers Association of South Africa (Mwasa) general secretary Tuwani Gumani commented this week: “The situation is toxic ... (it is) a censorship machine designed (to promote) the interests of the incumbent ruling party.”

These are all signs of where the road to Mangaung has led and, throughout the 17 year journey, my Inside Labour column has reported on that road, noting the actions of the courageous and the craven, the few — if any — saints and the many sinners who walked it, along with tales of occasional highlights, victories and, too often, defeats.

This has been a journey where the blemishes along the road have only partially been obscured by desperate sycophants and cynically self-serving individuals. And a review of that road, and of those who, from a labour perspective, have travelled or been dragged along it, was launched last night in Cape Town with the book, Right to Fight.

It is a selection of my columns covering those years, accompanied by appropriate cartoons by Jonathan "Zapiro" Shapiro. The book is in the tradition of the Inside Labour column: attempting to stimulate debate, encourage critical analysis and provide glimpses of the ideas, foibles and fancies that exist within the labour movement.

Zapiro’s front cover cartoon sums up the primary concern of most working people: the absence of decent work for decent pay. And the introductory cartoon, although referring to South Africa, sums up a global situation where surplus capacity and surplus production has led to the destruction of jobs and a race to the bottom for working people, pitted in competition with one another by their bosses and governments.

Looking back over those 17 years it is difficult not to be concerned, angry and deeply saddened. Because, for all the occasional highlights and victories for labour, and all the brave words trotted out by trade union and federation leaders, it is a fact that the labour movement in South Africa is today in a weaker position than when this column first appeared.

Yet a healthy, vibrant trade union movement is a bulwark against autocracy, an expression, in a limited way on the shopfloor, of peoples’ power; of unity in diversity. This is an image of the labour movement to which trade unionists, high and low, pay at least lip service.

As well they should, because the labour movement comprises the organised ranks of the sellers of labour, a potentially powerful force whose members share a fundamental interest is in ensuring a better life for all. But this simple and fair demand, especially in a world of plenty, brings labour into inevitable conflict with those who benefit from a system based on competition, profit and individual wealth.

As a result — and as this column has pointed out over the years — this makes the labour movement a target for governments, bosses and various sectarian groups that wish to manipulate or control individual unions and federations. Corrupted, unions can become praise singers for political factions, turning their backs on the principles of democracy.

The political sangomas are usually responsible, handing out patronage and promising pie in the sky if only they are put, or kept, in power. A lack of confidence among the ranks of working people is what these charlatans capitalise on.

But recent strikes and fightbacks, not least the tragic events at Marikana and the actions of farm workers in the Boland may have provided a wake-up call for the unions. They may realise, as a leading lawyer said in an sms to me last week, that “we are on a slippery downward slope”.

He was referring to reported official corruption, the arrogance of ministerial spendthrifts and the apparent approval of the so-called Secrecy Bill along with revelations from the Marikana commission.

Some individual union leaders and many members appear to agree with this concern, but seem uncertain what to do since there is no clear alternative on the political horizon. However, this week, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi took on the mantle of chair of the National Anti-Corruption Forum, pledging a virtual crusade.

So perhaps a road will be built beyond Mangaung that could provide a way toward a better future. It will not be easy, but it can be done. And with that thought I wish you all a peaceful festive season.

[Terry Bell is an economic and political analyst, writer, journalist and sometimes teacher who has produced the often controversial weekly Inside Labour column in South Africa since 1996. A recipient of the prestigious Nat Nakasa Award for courageous journalism, he is the author of several books, in recent years most notably Unfinished Business, South Africa, apartheid & truth. A former political prisoner in apartheid South Africa and in exile for 27 years, he has lived and worked in Britain, New Zealand, Tanzania and Zambia. He is now resident in Cape Town. Anyone in South Africa wishing to buy the Right to Fight (R100) can order through Bell's email (belnews [at]; overseas buyers, please go to where there is a PayPal facility.]


Like him or not, you have to read him. For the past 17 years that has been the reputation of Terry Bell for his Inside Labour columns that have tracked, from a labour perspective, the political roller-coaster ride that has been South Africa. In the process he has won an army of devoted readers both within and outside the labour movement, along with a number of detractors. Bouquets and brickbats range from Nobel literature laureate Nadine Gordimer's "a must read" to labour broker economist Loane Sharpe's description of the writer as "an unrepentant lunatic".

Bell is also a friend and fan of the country's internationally acclaimed cartoonist, Zapiro (Jonathan Shapiro) who has, over the same 17 years, produced an annual of cartoon selections that summarise the vagaries, the highs and lows of the social, economic and political life on Africa's southern tip. Right to Fight provides a selection of Inside Labour insights into those 17 years, each of them introduced by a Zapiro cartoon This volume reveals clearly why both commentators have deserved reputations for "telling it as it is" without fear or favour.

Public comments about Terry Bell and the Inside Labour column

Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of South Africa’s major trade union federation, COSATU: “A must read for any serious activist and enlightened employer.”

Nadine Gordimer, Nobel literature laureate: “An essential Friday read. Terry Bell keeps us on our toes.”

Loane Sharpe, labour brokerage economist: “He is an unrepentant lunatic.”

Steve Askin, research director, Good Jobs LA, California: “Inside Labour provides the insight I need to understand how South Africa’s branch of the global fight for workplace justice connects with our own.”

Ronnie Kasrils, former ANC cabinet minister: “On Labour issues and the wider political-economy he is sharp and to the point.”