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  August 18, 2013

South Africa's Largest Union on the Verge of Major Split

Patrick Bond: South Africa trade unions become magnets for capital as an ideological confict masked as a sex scandal threatens to fracture union behind the one-year-old massacre
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Patrick Bond is Professor of Political Economy at Wits University in South Africa. Bond is the author of the recent books, South Africa - The Present as History (with John Saul) and the 3rd edition of Elite Transition. He is also the co-editor of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of The Patrick Bond Report.

There is a labor battle raging in South Africa. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU, is the largest of the country's three main trade union federations, with 21 affiliated trade unions altogether organizing 1.8 million workers.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions' chief, Vavi, was suspended on Wednesday following a vote by the central executive committee. Vavi had recently admitted to having an affair with a subordinate.

With us to discuss all this is Patrick Bond. Patrick is the director of the Center for Civil Society and professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Bond is the author of the book Politics of Climate Justice and the editor of the book Zuma's Own Goal.

Thank you so much for joining us, Patrick.


DESVARIEUX: So, Patrick, let's give our viewers a bit of background here. Will you please explain what has been going on in South Africa related to the labor unions, and specifically talk about chief Vavi and this scandal?

BOND: Yes. The general secretary of COSATU, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, since 1999 has been Zwelinzima Vavi. And Vavi's been an extremely powerful force in a society pulling to the left, initially to try to get rid of President Thabo Mbeki. And viewers may recall in 2008 he was forced out of power by a revolt within his party, unusual in the African continent, a sort of palace coup, a peaceful revolt that represented him even before finishing his final term in office, just simply being evicted, and replaced, after an interim presidency of Kgalema Motlanthe, replaced by Jacob Zuma.

And Zuma had been supported by the trade unions and the Communists, as well as the Zulu nationalists here in Durban, the largest ethnic group. And this has been the coalition that held quite strongly, with a variety of others who were dissenters from Thabo Mbeki's government.

Viewers will recall that Mbeki had 350,000 deaths during his period because he refused to give HIV/AIDS treatment, the medicines that can prolong life. He simply denied them. And so he was very unpopular by the end.

And when Zuma came in, Vavi initially gave tremendous support. But very quickly, since Zuma didn't really change Mbeki's economic policies, and in some ways amplified them, Vavi turned away and also was very concerned about the high levels of corruption in society. So he single-handedly brought the trade unions into a variety of conflicts above ground.

Now, these conflicts were burning below ground, as the anniversary of the Marikana massacre shows.

We really have the most extraordinary levels of class struggle in the world. In fact, the World Economic Forum not long ago surveyed 144 countries and showed that the disharmony between employers and employees in South Africa was the highest of all the countries surveyed. So this is very intense society, Vavi representing a very clear and eloquent left stance.

And that is in part why the sex scandal broke out and was immediately politicized. He certainly did admit his guilt and apologized for abuse of the office. And the woman in question initially demanded about $200,000 as a going-away fee. And upon rejecting that and upon seeing the issue politicized, Vavi was then the lightning rod for a great deal of the political dissent within COSATU, splitting more or less, I think, halfway down, the largest union supporting Vavi, but most of the other bigger unions opposed to him.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And there is a growing concern that this could lead to a split amongst these different unions. What will happen if there is a split?

BOND: Well, the context, again, of extreme militancy, especially as the wage bargaining session gets underway, with, in the mining sector especially, a rival union to the main COSATU union. And that union is called AMCU, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. It came up about ten years ago. There was a very small breakaway from the National Union of Mineworkers, NUM, but in the last year has overtaken NUM in many of the major sites, like the platinum fields of Marikana, about two hours to the northwest of Johannesburg, where 34 people were killed a year ago. And that site is one of the most important places, the platinum belt, as well as gold, where AMCU has come up.

And I suspect this is happening under the cover, and in some cases above, in a variety of other sectors--rival unions, dissent splits. In one case, the South African Democratic Teachers Union, just this week the president was thrown out for being too pro-Vavi. And so the Vavi issue is one of the superficial reasons for the split, but underneath it the trade union movement is really fragmenting very badly.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let's take a look at a comment that one of the trade union presidents had to say, Cedric Gina. He said that those who want Comrade Vavi out of COSATU want a COSATU which will be a toy telephone, a labor desk, a pro-capitalist COSATU, and those who are defending him want a revolutionary socialist, anti-colonialist, and anti-imperialist COSATU. Is this indeed the case? Is this a matter of pro-capitalist versus anti-capitalist in the battle? And is there capital at work behind the scenes in all of this?

BOND: Well, yes indeed. And I think Cedric Gina, who's the president of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, NUMSA--that's the largest union and the most of left-leaning union--along with the secretary-general, Irvin Jim, they have certainly been at the forefront of demanding COSATU intensify the class struggle and promote socialist objectives, including nationalization of the mines, the big metalworks, as well as other strategic industries, as well as imposing exchange controls and promoting a transition to a green economy. That's the most important development, I think, in trade unionism is that the metalworkers have really brought environmental questions to the forefront.

And so we have a very interesting situation where a more socialist-oriented bloc within the trade unions, especially NUMSA, have worked very closely with Vavi to raise the questions of inequality, poverty, unemployment, and environment, as well as gender equity and corruption, all of the major problems of the day. This is the trade union NUMSA that has pushed forward.

On the other side have been the mineworkers and a variety of other unions that have been allied with Jacob Zuma. And yes, capital has been with them, in the sense that many of their--especially mineworker leaders have become major magnets. One of them, James Motlasi, was on the board of Anglo American. Another, Cyral Ramaphosa, the deputy president of the African National Congress, former mineworker leader, was actually a 9 percent owner of Lonmin, and exactly a year ago, on 15 August 2012, wrote some emails that are seen to have been instrumental in bringing in the police to quell the uprising that in turn became the tragic Marikana massacre, 34 of the mineworkers at the platinum fields there at Lonmin massacred in the course of 20 minutes, another 78 wounded, 270 arrested.

And that part of the world has not calmed down at all. A year afterwards, still many cases of violence, several murders in the last couple of weeks. And it's a really dangerous situation as the AMCU, the rival union, has demanded a 100 percent wage increase. The NUM union, for the areas it still controls, demands 60 percent, some of the big mining houses only offering about five and a half percent.

So we're going to see in the coming weeks yet more conflict there on the mines. And I do think it will include the ideological conflict Cedric Gina spoke of, in other words, whether the unions move in a more socialist direction, independent left, and put pressure on Jacob Zuma, and potentially even break away from the alliance with the African National Congress to start a workers party moving to the left, or, on the other hand, consolidate corporatist pro-Zuma rule in the trade unions and become, as Cedric Gina puts it, simply a toy telephone for the ruling party.

DESVARIEUX: Thank you so much for joining us, Patrick.

BOND: Thank you very much.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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