All aboard the gravy train

It says a lot about an organisation that you invite somebody on the occasion of your 21st anniversary to point to your weaknesses and debate whether you are on track for another 21 years. I am confident you will indulge me, for like any opportunistic striker (and I am sure there are many of you in the hall today), I propose to take full advantage.

I think that the problem for Cosatu is not whether it is on track but whether it is anywhere close to influencing the driving of the train.

You are not even in the first two carriages.

Cosatu is tolerated in third class for it gives the ANC legitimacy and a massive number of votes. Even in the alliance you are the labourers. After the celebrations you wake up to the babelaas (hangover) of neo-liberalism. Of course, you have warded off an all-out assault on worker rights by being useful. But these remain largely defensive struggles. Often Cosatu has barely hung onto their seats in the train as elements up front have tried to shove you off, especially once elections are over.

There is nothing inherently “pure” about Cosatu. Some of you on the train are hanging on because you look out and see the hunger and desperation of the absolutely poor and are content with the trickle down of the gravy into third class. Others, knowing your Bible quite well, hope that a modern-day version of “Jacob’s ladder” will provide the path to the first-class compartments.


The train has changed course, comrades, but because the tracks look the same and the curve has been slow but steady you have not noticed the train making a U-turn.

You have mistaken the black smoke of the coal train for the “Black Republic”. When will you see through the smoke-screen of BEE, the African Renaissance and a hollowed out African nationalism?

In pointing out your weaknesses I am simply presuming that you are still on track to effect a fundamental restructuring of our economy in which redistribution is the key and in this endeavour you are determined to mobilise the broadest sections of the working class.

What, then, is a pilgrim to do?

Commandment 1:

Thou shalt not have an intractable obsession with a form of industrial unionism that is inadequate to organise workplaces that straddle across sectors and informal precarious workers and which leaves your (last) compartment representing only permanent organised workers. This raises accusations from the poor and the capitalist class that you are a self-serving aristocracy. This is dangerous because the notion of a (black) capitalist class speaking for the downtrodden and even aligning with them against you is not far-fetched.

Commandment 2:

Thou shalt not be content to sit at the back of the train where you cannot set the agenda of the ANC but simply react to the directions set out up-front. You cannot influence debates inside the ANC because when the NEC meets you are not even present. You need to create the space to influence debates inside the ANC and the alliance based on an autonomous theoretical elaboration and an independent political platform.

Commandment 3:

Thou shalt not easily judge or turn your eyes away from those worse off than you. Do not fall foul of the modern-day version of the biblical curse: “I came to you when I had no job and you said you could not help because I was not a union member. When 40% of the nation came to you and said ‘work, please’ you said wait for the Job Summit. When we organised in the face of no resources and repression you said we were single issue organisations. Is not the main obsession of most of your members one single issue — wage increase?”

Commandment 4:

Do not see waged employment as the solution to all social ills of the country. Given that employment is not an escape route out of poverty, it is only by linking into community insurgencies that you will explore in an imaginative way forms of social emancipation and liberation beyond waged labour, for example in the direction of concerted de-commodification and the universal provision of basic income. 

Commandment 5:

While it seems those calling for a break in the alliance are in the sphere of wishful thinking, your current subordination to the ANC greatly constrains your ability to criticise and mobilise against the ruling party’s promotion of a new corporate elite. Instead of seriously building a counter-hegemonic movement you have become obsessed with leadership struggles in the ANC and it is personal aggrandisement and egos that drive many of you. Stop waiting for a single Messiah!

Remember the commandment: Thou shalt not worship personal egos and false gods.

Commandment 6:

Beware those who dress up old conservative ideas in radical bluster.

The return to workerism is the false way. It forces you back into your own compartment, as if the direction of the train does not matter. It cuts us off from the poor who cannot even get onto the train. The workerists want you to remain captive at Union headquarters, but workers also need to occupy Union Buildings.

Commandment 7:

You must reject the false belief in the idea that you are doing well on the terrain of the legal. Some of the awards and judgements coming from, among others, the Supreme Court of Appeal, which has resurrected the reasonable employer test, are truly frightening. Thou shalt not bear false witness to the value of the law.

Commandment 8:

Thou shalt not ignore the upsurges and possibilities for internationalism provided by the red tide in Latin America. It may be neo-populist, it may not last, but it deserves to be understood and engaged. There are world historical possibilities, particularly in wielding the power of the state to re-imagine a programme of nationalisation and radical redistribution of wealth.

Commandment 9:

The ideologically weak shall not inherit the Earth. In recent times there has been an increasing confidence of anti-apartheid intellectuals turned conservative ideologues. The rightward shift of the ANC has found its intellectual handmaidens. Your response has been frankly pathetic.

Commandment 10:

Beware the person who comes bearing timeless catechisms masquerading as the Saviour from on high.

In times of ideological and political uncertainty and even despondency there arrive in our midst soothsayers: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the answer but by me.” It was Lenin who wrote about the necessity for a concrete analysis of a concrete situation and Marx who warned that we do not simply go around proclaiming “here is the truth; on your knees before it”. Dogmatists, like fundamentalists of all kinds, are just lazy thinkers.

How does one then mount a counter-hegemonic struggle? How does one develop a programme that becomes the general interest of society? These are your challenges.

I see at the end of the day’s events, we will be cutting the cake. And is this not really what this struggle is about? We are tired of the cake getting bigger, but by the time old capital and BEE dig in, we have to be thankful for a few crumbs.

Do we really have another road to offer? Your ideas, like “Buy South African”, are as futile as trying to sell shaving cream to the Taliban. Your claiming victory when the newly privatised train is forced to be painted in the colours of the South African flag is as ridiculous as Bush proclaiming victory in Iraq. Surely you should be more ambitious than simply wanting to slow down the neo-liberal juggernaut.

Are you on track for another 21 years? Well, if you are going to be you should watch closely who keeps the knife that cuts the cake. For, in this wonderful, mighty cauldron of South African politics, you had better watch your back.

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