/ 26 August 2022

Unions must solve problems of credibility and organisation if they are to effect change

Cosatu Shutdown 5783 Dv
Unions failed to shut down the economy on August 24. Growing membership and better leadership are vital for them to be an effective social force. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

To an ordinary worker and trade union member, the stayaway on Wednesday must have posed a serious dilemma. 

Imagine … It is Tuesday 23 August. Jabulile has just arrived back from work.

On the one hand, she is facing a real fall in wages as inflation outstrips any increase she might get. Basic services have collapsed where she lives, so water and sewage services are, at best, unreliable – which is also a good description of the electricity supply nationwide. She might get home from work, having paid a significantly higher taxi fare, to find she is unable to cook the food that she can barely afford. If she gets home safe, that is, given the level of violence against women.

She remembers that earlier this year she heard finance minister Enoch Godongwana, a former trade union general secretary to boot, announce that, in the face of this disaster, the government would spend less on public services. That means the queues at the clinic will be even longer, the places in hospital even more scarce and her children will be in even bigger classes in school. 

In short, Jabulile has plenty to protest about. 

And there have indeed been “service delivery” protests in the township where she lives, as there have in many other areas.

On the other hand, she also has plenty to lose. If she were to lose her job, as so many people she knows did during the pandemic, she would be plunged into even deeper poverty, along with the rest of the 46% unemployed. Real starvation looms. Union reports tell her that 40% of South Africans go to sleep hungry. She doesn’t want her family to join them. Losing even a day’s wages would result in a significant sacrifice of basic necessities. 

So, Jabulile has to weigh up what her union is asking of her very carefully. The stakes are high.

She knows about the history of stayaways in the country. She knows that before 1994, stayaways really meant stayaways. The economy effectively shut down. Even the workers most visible to the middle class – retail workers in OK Bazaars, Checkers and Pick n Pay – stayed at home. And stayaways were frequent – a constant source of pressure. 

And she knows that it hasn’t been like that for years now. When there is a stayaway, some of the economy stops but not much. If the taxi associations join the protest, the number of people staying away increases. But she has heard that The South African National Taxi Council has refused this time, apparently as payback for other unions opposing 100% loading during the pandemic. 

And these stayaways are isolated events. The last general stayaway was in 2020. The one before that in 2017. Do these sporadic one-day actions really do any good?

And then Jabulile looks at the trade union movement – an alphabet soup of unions and federations, as it splinters and fragments. The radio news said the two main federations called the stayaway on the same day, apparently coincidentally. But Cosatu is irritated with its rival Saftu because it calls openly for the downfall of the ANC government. So, it is not prepared to work with Saftu, at least at the national level. 

And then there is metal workers’ union Numsa, which has been so much in the news recently, and for all the wrong reasons. She has heard that a lot of office bearers and officials have been suspended as the leadership has tried to clamp down on dissent. She has heard multiple accusations of corruption and of takeover by an investment company. 

And Jabulile has seen on TV Numsa leaders divided at the Saftu congress earlier this year. The Numsa general secretary was on SAfm talking about the stayaway, complaining that the Saftu general secretary had been plotting against him with disaffected members of Numsa, “so if truth be told, we could not mobilise”, he says, although later he pretends it’s because Numsa has no money.

It seems Saftu itself is so divided that it can’t even agree on participation in its first mass action since before the pandemic.

In this context, what would you do if you were Jabulile?

Unions need to change

This is the problem the trade union movement has to solve if it is to resume its former place of influence and power in South Africa. It is a question of credibility and of organisation.

As I have written elsewhere, the trade unions have become heavily bureaucratised. The leadership has become divorced from its base. Unless this problem is addressed, the credibility of the movement will continue to decline.

And the decline in trade union membership as a proportion of working people is a testament to its shrinking base – now about 27% of workers. 

This should represent an opportunity. Ever since the formation of Saftu in 2017, its general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, has been imploring the affiliates to organise the unorganised. But somehow it doesn’t happen. Instead, the affiliates of Cosatu and Saftu, and others who are not affiliated with either federation, fight each other over the 27%. 

Part of the reason for this is that the South African workforce is not the same in 2022 as it was in 1994. There are a lot fewer workers with permanent jobs, employed by the company they actually work for, and there are more contract and outsourced workers of one kind or another. For all of them, work is precarious.

And these workers are generally not organised. They are not so easy to organise. Their very precarity means they cannot easily be absorbed into permanent, stable shop steward councils and all the other traditional structures of the trade unions. And organising them can be very labour intensive. Resources have to be devoted to this work. And that is not happening.

Until the trade union movement is more representative of the South African workforce, and until it organises outside of its comfort zone, it will not be able decisively to shut down the economy, as it failed to do on 24 August. 

August 24

There are varying assessments of what did happen. I spoke to both worker and employer representatives. Leaving aside those whose job is to talk up the achievements, there is a general consensus that the stayaway was patchy at best. And it certainly was very far from shutting down the economy. Perhaps a more modest objective would have helped.

The marches were relatively small, but this was substantially a function of limited resources for transport. Resources in general were scarce. Cosatu told me it was limited by expenditure on its upcoming congress; Numsa was limited by the prioritisation of its dispute with Saftu over mobilisation for the stayaway and Saftu was limited by its weak financial resources. 

Despite their size, the signs of alliance between workers and social movement activists were good, although the lack of clear, positive proposals around which to rally was a weakness.

As for the level of support for staying away from work, some big factories closed – VW, in Eastern Cape, for example, lost a day of production. But the engineering employers’ association Seifsa told me the stayaway was not as well supported as they had experienced in the past – perhaps a function of Numsa’s refusal to mobilise. There was no evidence of widespread withdrawal of labour.

The need for a political alternative

Saftu’s initial call for a stayaway, through the Working Class Summit, was a recognition that the country is in a deep economic, social and political crisis. The governing party is increasingly losing credibility. But no alternative has emerged to “lead the nation” in a programme of recovery. And the nation very desperately needs leadership. There have been attempts in parliament to explore the possibility of some kind of grand coalition, after the 2024 election, assuming the ANC loses its majority. But such a coalition, if it were ever able to form, would be inherently extremely unstable. 

The crisis in South Africa is crying out for a coherent social and political force that can provide leadership away from the greed and corruption that has accompanied the ANC’s project of building a black middle class. The parties of the middle class are unable to do that. If the trade unions, as the most substantial organisations representing working people, are not able to provide that leadership, it is not clear where it will come from. 

That would require a number of things to happen in the medium term:

  • Trade union leadership would have to throw off the privileges of office and reunite with its membership, restoring the democracy and accountability for which it was once known.
  • The trade unions would need to broaden their reach to the precariat and the unemployed and work collaboratively with organised communities around the issues of basic services, which affect the vast majority of their members.
  • Cosatu would need to end its alliance with the ANC and throw its weight behind the building of some kind of broad left political party that could begin to represent the interests, not only of working people, but also of the vast number of unemployed people. Saftu would similarly need to resist Numsa’s attempts to wed it to Numsa’s own brand of narrow, sectarian politics represented by the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party.

Meanwhile, immediately, in the face of the current crisis, both Cosatu and Saftu (preferably together with the other significant federations, Fedusa and Nactu) would need to produce a convincing strategy of continuous, growing organisation and mass action to replace the once-off set pieces which do little to change the world. 

The immediate objective of such action would be to turn the ANC government away from its disastrous neoliberal economic “strategy”, the failure of which is there for all to see and suffer from, towards a strategy that would expand the economy, redistribute wealth and create jobs.

Roger Etkind is the editor of Amandla Magazine. He worked for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa on and off for 17 years, starting in 1988 and ending in May this year.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.