From shop floor to trading floor

South Africa’s economic revolution is under way and trade unions are leading the charge, writes Eddie Koch

WHAT began as a silent coup, hatched in the corporate boardrooms of Main Street, Johannesburg, and Sandton, has burgeoned into one of the most radical transformations since the 1994 elections. At stake is the very nature of South African capitalism and the soul of the country’s labour movement.

Signs of the revolution are everywhere. Walk into the bank and there is Cyril Ramaphosa, beaming out of a life-size cardboard cut-out, exhorting the poor and disadvantaged to share his new-found interest in beer, food, property and newspapers.

“Participate in Johnnic’s Ikageng Share Scheme now!” says the man with the big smile.
The scheme makes available 2,7- million shares, at reduced rates, to black South Africans as part of the drive by Ramaphosa’s National Empowerment Consortium (NEC) “to get people from historically disadvantaged communities to become meaningfully involved in the economy”.

Surf the Net and you’ll come across a similar plea. “Cyril invites you to share our interests in beer, food, newspapers and property,” says a Web page read widely by those in the non-governmental organisation community.

And at May Day rallies around the country, thousands of pamphlets were distributed urging the working class not to strike or stay away, but to buy Ramaphosa’s shares.

There is little doubt that the NEC is fusing familiar organisational strategies of the labour movement with the novel formulae of American spin-doctors in an effort to spread the ownership of Johnnic - which controls one of the country’s largest publishing houses, and has significant interest in South African Breweries and food giant Premier. It wants to push the economic empowerment that has so far enriched only a few black men out of the boardrooms and into the townships.

Walk into the offices of the National Union of Mineworkers or the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union, which recently allowed their names and their access to massive amounts in members’ retirement funds to be used in a buy-out of insurance giant Hoskens, and you may see labour officials scanning the business pages to see how well their shares in the company, bought at the discounted rate of R2,50 and now worth more than double that, are doing on the stock market.

Next to them might be a glossy invitation to the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg for a glittering launch of a new bursary scheme. The scheme will be financed from the blue- chip investments these two unions have made on the stock exchange. It will pay the full fees and expenses for 400 black university students every year.

Then ask Sam Shilowa, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), for an interview about this new phenomenon in which trade unions are scrambling to invest the pension and provident funds of their members in the corporate sector.

He will urge you instead to take a drive to Kopano ke Matla [Sesotho for Unity is Strength], Cosatu’s new investment company, located not downtown in the dingy headquarters that the labour federation occupied when it was leading the charge against apartheid, but in the plush quarters of De Loitte and Touche on a wooded country estate near Midrand.

Kopano’s director, an amiable man called Tumelo Motsisi, is dressed in one of the smart blue suits and silk ties that now hang in the wardrobes of most union leaders. And he is very busy. Office workers scurry in and out of the office with messages that “the deal has been approved”, “proposals must be finalised” and “contracts have to be drawn up”.

He talks passionately about Kopano’s aims, which are grandiose: to invest in the commanding heights of the South African economy (especially its highly centralised financial sector and those that deliver important social services such as construction and health) and to use this stake to ensure the economy performs in the interests of Cosatu’s members and other people from their side of the railway line.

A brochure describes why Cosatu decided to set up Kopano two months ago: “Valuable investment opportunities exist that will benefit workers of this country. An opportunity to pursue these investments in a socially responsible manner that will contribute to the empowerment of workers and the communities in which they live. Create a co-ordinated investment strategy for affiliates.”

So far Kopano has completed one project: the formation of a joint venture with a British company called Park Hamper that will use the buying power of the federation’s members to purchase consumables in bulk and pack them into low- cost Christmas hampers for the workers. There are plans, once the first hampers have been distributed, to introduce low- cost and nutritional food parcels for poor communities.

But this is the small fry. “We will invest in a range of activities and sectors - large and small - but we know that black empowerment will get nowhere unless we get a meaningful stake in the financial sector that controls this economy. We are also pursuing investments in the health sector, construction and tourism as this is where we believe we can use ownership of the means of production to deliver the priorities of the Reconstruction and Development Programme.”

Motsisi says he cannot give details about two big deals going down in the finance and health sectors because they are still at a sensitive stage, hence all the scurrying in the passage outside his office.

But he is eloquent about Cosatu’s consortium with the Danish labour federation and a black business group to purchase the parastatal leisure company, Aventura.

The aim is to renovate Aventura’s lodges in Mpumalanga and the Northern Province, build new ones in other provinces, and to market these holiday destinations through the union and fraternal organisations for middle- and lower-income social groups. The resorts will also offer conference and education facilities for like-minded organisations.

In this way, says Motsisi, Cosatu will be able to use the untapped potential of its constituency’s leisure time to rapidly boost the occupancy rates of the ailing parastatal and turn it into a profit centre.

“At the same time, the economy as a whole will benefit because of the increased productivity that will result from workers being able to take a break and relax.”

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