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Telesur’s The Global African looks at the split inside the South African Labor Movement

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BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: You’re joining us today at Busboys and Poets on 5th and K Northwest in Washington, D.C., for what I will guarantee will be a very, very interesting interview and discussion. Over the last several years, a split has developed in one of the most important trade union movements on this planet. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, which was instrumental in the fight against apartheid, beginning in 1985 into the 1990s, has undergone a very intense internal struggle, an internal struggle that has taken on very, very ominous overtones that have resulted in the expulsion of the general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, the chastisement and marginalization of many key leaders, and a polarization within the ranks not only of the trade union movement, but other social forces in South Africa. The Global African has the opportunity of having an interview with two of the most important leaders of the South African trade union movement. We’re joined this moment by two very distinguished trade union leaders, popular leaders from South Africa. Zwelinzima Vavi, the former general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, is the vice chairperson of the Millennium Labour Council. He became general secretary of COSATU. He was expelled as general secretary in March 2015 after speaking out vigorously against the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa from the trade union federation in November 2014. Also joining us is Irvin Jim, the general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, the largest union in South Africa, with over 300,000 members. He was elected to the role in October 2008. And a study of his journey to this office reveals a life lived in this struggle for equality and justice. Gentlemen, thank you. ZWELINZIMA VAVI: Thank you very much, and thanks for having us. FLETCHER: Oh. It’s a pleasure and honor. IRVIN JIM: Thank you, Bill. FLETCHER: You know, for people in the United States–and, I would argue, for much of the English-speaking world–the developments and the struggle within COSATU came as something of a surprise. There was an assumption that was often repeated about the level of unity within COSATU, support and dedication to the leadership. And then all of a sudden, it seemed, it seemed as if that came undone. What actually happened? VAVI: Well, it has been a long time coming. The truth is that there would have never been a point where COSATU was 100 percent united on any matter. But there’s always been a sufficient body, sufficient in that it could drive a program towards the decisions and implementation of the decisions of the federation in the manner that gave an impression of 100 percent unity behind anything. But things went slowly to the head when we had a dedicated program to oppose the neoliberal programs being advanced by the liberation movement that we had formed an alliance with the African National Congress. So we had running battles against the leadership of the ANC over a long period of time, started way back, hardly a year into our democracy, 1995, when suddenly they announced a package of programs to privatize basic services that historically, even under apartheid, were being run by the state, and suddenly there was this appetite to hand them over to the private sector. There was a clash. Then they announced unilaterally that any discussion within the ANC and between the ANC and its allies, the trade union movement and the South African Communist Party, that they were introducing a program, an economic package, which was essentially a liberal program, despite its pitiful ways, growth, employment, and redistribution. And we fought this. And we were very united. Relatively, there would have been one or two persons, one or two unions not comfortable, but the overwhelming body said this is the right thing to do for the unions. We fought. And until we became not good political friends to the president who succeeded Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, we had running battles with him. So when there was a huge campaign to get him replaced, we threw our weight with the person who have raised their hand to want to contest his leadership at the ANC conference in 2007. Still we were relatively united. And we got out of this conference in 2007 exceedingly excited about the prospects for workers in the future. Suddenly, we had decent work, as defined by the ILO, as a principal program of the new leadership. We had a program to address the issue of education and training as the second priority. We had the priority to address the collapsing health in the country and through the introduction of the national health insurance. We had a program to address the rural poverty of our people and to make sure that the rural side forms part of the economic mainstream of the society through agrarian reform and food security programs. We had priority number five, to address the crisis already developing of both crime and corruption. This excited us. And so when we campaigned for the ANC in 2009, these were the driving issues that made COSATU so united behind the leadership of Jacob Zuma. But then it took a year or less before uncomfortabilities emerged, and suddenly we had our own discussions about what was the meaning of this. We called this a stalemate, a policy zigzag, and inside the government, that was causing stagnation on the policy front. And we saw an emergence of a phenomenon of what we termed the tender-preneurs, or people who have no skills as entrepreneurs, relied on the government connections to win tenders in government, which was the phenomenon, just an unbelievable rise on the phenomenon of corruption. We were concerned, and the alliance was still as dysfunctional as it was during the Thabo Mbeki era. And when that started to bite, there was few things that happened and [incompr.] Irvin Jim is the best person to articulate this. Unlike Thabo Mbeki, who had sought to isolate, marginalize any trade union leader who would not agree and comply with what he was pushing at the policy level, Jacob Zuma sought to target both the trade unions and the South African Communist Party for co-option in his government, and when he does that, and suddenly the leaders who had been so critical of neoliberalism suddenly had a stake in the success of neoliberal programs themselves. And having learned how the previous segments of leaders would have been isolated in the SACP and COSATU, they knew that the best way to do will be to [incompr.] them inside the trade union, so that when you deal with the criticism of the government, suddenly you find yourself to be criticizing people inside the house. And that’s how COSATU slowly got divided. FLETCHER: We’ll be back in one moment after a quick break.


FLETCHER: And we’re back for this great discussion with Zwelinzima Vavi and Irvin Jim from South Africa. In terms of accountability, last summer I saw the film on the Marikana massacre. And I was at a conference, and I sat in the back of the room and I watched it. And at the end of the film, there was supposed to be a discussion. VAVI: Yes. FLETCHER: No, this was actually in Britain at a conference. So there was supposed to be a discussion after the film was over, ’cause the filmmaker was there. And I couldn’t stay. I left the room. I was crying. I was yelling. I wasn’t yelling at anybody. I was just yelling. And I kept saying, how did this happen in South Africa? And listening to the testimony of some of these government officials who had been in the liberation movement, there was a level of trauma that I felt in watching this. And I have found a lot of people, here, at least, don’t really want to talk about Marikana. They’ll acknowledge that it happened, but they don’t really want to talk about it. And I need to hear from both of you about Marikana. How did things get to the point that former liberation fighters would authorize mass murder? IRVIN JIM: I think [incompr.] a little bit more brutal and honest that I think we might have celebrated the 1994 political breakthrough, which I think we will continue to celebrate, because for the first time black people in general, Africans in particular, voted. However, I think if one were to do an audit about the fact that black people in general, Africans, are at the bottom of the food chain and that we have not moved to dealing with super exploitation, which was an accumulation strategy of apartheid, colonial strategy to exploit, because South African capitalism grew on the back or [incompr.] on the back of super exploitation of black and African labor, the fact that there is absolutely no preparedness. And I’m–we’re making the point about execution of neoliberal policies. And we can now sit back and accept that what basically heralded this neoliberal agenda was a negotiated settlement. And people have begun to write books talking about [incompr.] was in the negotiation [incompr.] a book. There is a guy who is a spy who would say this is how negotiations took place behind the scenes. They have engaged Nelson Mandela and many other people. And, quite frankly, the dominant white monopoly capital and white population that own and control the economy in the South African setting have got their deal cut out, in the sense that we just vote every after five years and we can say, if one would compare the apartheid faultlines and the failure to deliver deepening poverty, the fact that we are number one in terms of inequality, at the back of a government that suggests that it’s got “a good story to tell”, you can say that apartheid continues by other means. And therefore we’re sitting in a situation where it is not shocking that that very same government, which have failed to introduce a national minimum wage, which has failed to break the backbone of apartheid colonial system, we’ve still got apartheid wage in South Africa, where the difference between black workers and white workers–black workers are between 4,000 to 9,000; white workers start from 20,000 and above. The gap between ordinary workers and CEOs is 1,728 times or more. You could conclude that it is not surprising that–I think Lenin said this, that the state in any capitalist mode of production is nothing but an organ of oppression. And the state does not arise. It only arises when the contradiction become completely irreconcilable. And that state present itself, it gets presented as if it’s a state that reconciled contradiction and is above society. The reality is that the dominant class in society reproduces itself in the state, and basically that state will act in the interests of that dominant class. I think it’s a travesty of justice, what happened in Marikana, for the first time, against the Freedom Charter that says there’s no government that can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people. Workers were massacred. We are the most hated people because we actually said this was a massacre. And those who want to protect and to defend the status quo refuse to define this is a massacre. They say it was a tragedy. I think a week ago now there has been a report that was out, and it’s a blood wash. All cabinet people who, in our view, would have taken a decision, we reject that those two women, one who was a national police commissioner, that she could have got alone to take a decision that go and kill workers. And we saw, if you watch the movie, you saw [incompr.] revenge were organized. There were a sizable number of arms, of live ammunition,– VAVI: Over 4,000 rounds. JIM: –over 4,000 rounds that were organized. You could say that this was pre-planned. FLETCHER: Absolutely. JIM: And therefore there is no justice that the current commissioner have actually delivered to people of Marikana. We’ve got a duty as left forces and revolutionary forces to basically campaign for justice, for truth to be able to come up, because how can those two ladies be the one? I mean, the one who was in the province said, today we’re ending this. How did she know? She was not carrying a gun, but it means someone would have given orders. And we think that it’s high time that they need to speak up, to actually say what happened on that fateful, painful day. FLETCHER: We’ll be back in one moment after a quick break.


VAVI: [snip] and that is the tragedy that indicates that the trade union movement in South Africa was beginning to–or some in the trade union movement were beginning to be defocused away from the workplace struggles of the workers into the endless political battles to pursue careers for the leaders to go to Parliament. This tragedy is the direct message to all those unions who have been doing that. This was the members of a very important union in the federation, the biggest free leader of COSATU over many years, where Cyril Ramaphosa is only but a hero, because he played such an important role in its formation, that–whose members turned against it and protested against the fact that they were not being represented or saw themselves as not being represented by the union, created their own workers committees, who took up their issues to management on their own, to the exclusion of the union, until the disaster of Marikana then happens. So we are insisting that the unions, as the prime organ of the workers, must return back to the basics, organize workers, educate them on the basis of their own interest, and fight in the workplace battles, connect those workplace battles with the broader battles of the society. And that’s how COSATU has been. We call it a transformative social trade union movement because of its ability to find a connection between the workplace struggles and the social struggles for better houses, better education, and better political rights for society and workers and so forth. And the Marikana is a tragedy, because it represent this slow movement away from that type of trade unionism that COSATU has always been. And since that Marikana, we know that so many of COSATU unions have been [paging (?)] people who think alike, who are seen to be too radical, too critical of the direction the ANC government has been taking in terms of its economic policies, and they have been [paged (?)] left, right, and center, and they are now forced out. They are forming splinter unions. And so when you hear the story, big headlines, COSATU’s splitting, you don’t know the extent of fragmentization at the union level as people are running away from the dictatorial tendencies, from the onslaught of suspension, dismissal, expulsion, without even any form of discussion or allowing people to face charges in disciplinary hearings. That’s the tragedy. That’s the tragedy. FLETCHER: Irvin, NUMSA was one of the unions that was perhaps among the most outspoken criticising the government, and there were criticisms that were thrown back at NUMSA for attempting to be a political party, for being syndicalists, for any number of other things and not respecting the stage of the struggle. JIM: Bill, I think just to pick it back on the question you posed, I think that trade unions are voluntary organizations, and they’re one of the working class. Late Joe Slovo, who’s late now, he defined them as nothing else but a prime mass organization which must defend the legal status of the union, which a union cannot demand from workers any level of consciousness. Workers, by virtue of being paid wages, they have a right to join the union, meaning that a trade union is basically both a shield and a spear in the hands of workers. And within the traditions of COSATU end its affiliates, the kind of trade unions that we have been building and which we have been privileged to be part of are unions that basically champion worker control, worker democracy, because workers can elect shop stewards, they can recall them if they get 30 percent of workers saying we no longer need your service. In this case, we have a situation where, as Vavi is saying, that between these forces, which–basically they are not forces just in COSATU. We’re dealing with a force that is outside COSATU, embedded in the ANC, embedded in the SACP, and they could not, because they tolerate a COSATU that is independent, that is militant, and they have to begin to deal with this COSATU, because they have implemented since 1996 a macro economic program that have led to serious deindustrialization. I mean, NUMSA at the time, as manufacturing as a contribution in the GDP in 1994 was around 23 percent. As we speak, it is below 11 percent. We know that that program led to removal of exchange control. The money that was needed to be invested in productive centers of the economy to create jobs was allowed, both legal and illegal, through capital flights and to financial speculation. We know the reality that the reserve bank continues to champion inflation targeting. And because they allow the money to leave the country, they have to keep interest rate very high so that they can attract capital inflows. We fought them against privatization. And therefore it is not therefore surprising why they had to, through the South African Communist Party, target key leaders, put them in the office in the SACP, give them position in the ANC NEC. Their task inside the federation–and we saw this in practice–was to basically have a [second bite. They sit with us on the CC. (?)] We debate when those positions are attacked in COSATU. They get given a mandate back to go and fix COSATU. So within no time they have to appreciate that they needed to deal with NUMSA. That remains very critical. And to deal with NUMSA they needed to prepare the working class so that this is not a shock. The Communist Party basically use its [incompr.], which is–what? VAVI: Journal. JIM: A journal that’s supposed to be educating the working class to launch an offensive of propaganda against Zwelinzima Vavi, against NUMSA as an organization, but also very careful. They would want to pull us out of workers. We’re not attacking the workers; we’re dealing with a tendency of extreme left. Sometimes we get defined as anti-majoritarian. We are working with imperialist forces. We work with CIA. And to stigmatize, so that they can launch an offensive, because if they were to succeed, it means they can then, as they would deal with us and deal with our organization–. And I think they have one–very open now–it’s no longer a secret that they have even formed a new union calling on NUMSA members to join that union and basically dump the current leadership, which they want to paint to members as extreme left leadership and so forth. The reality is that we’ve got leadership of COSATU and the SACP that has been won over by government in the neoliberal agenda, and they are prepared to destroy the federation and build a new federation which will be [a toy telephone (?)] of the African National Congress. FLETCHER: I want to thank you both very much for this discussion. I have enough questions to keep us here for another 24 hours, and I know that I’m not going to be able to ask them. But this was marvelous. Thank you both very much. JIM: Thank you very much, Bill. VAVI: Thank you. FLETCHER: Okay. FLETCHER: Thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. We’ll see you next time.


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Bill Fletcher Jr. has been an activist since his teen years and previously served as a senior staff person in the national AFL-CIO; he is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, and the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions and The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Fletcher Jr. is also a member of The Real News Network Board of Directors.