Cape Town is currently playing host to “the largest global gathering of trade unions ever to take place in Africa”. There was something slightly surreal about the opening ceremony of the UNI Global Union’s World Congress on Sunday, where glowing tributes to the history of South Africa’s labour movement conveniently omitted the current state of chaos within Cosatu. By REBECCA DAVIS.
The reason why the UNI Global Union is holding its congress in South Africa this year, as delegates were repeatedly reminded on Sunday, is to mark the 20th anniversary of South African democracy. The year 2014 is also the 29th anniversary of the formation of Cosatu, though there’s little to celebrate at the moment for a trade union federation riven by internal fighting. Is the timing of this international gathering a little awkward for the powers that be in South Africa’s labour movement?
Labour analyst Terry Bell expressed it best. “There will be one publicly unspoken question among the more than 2,000 delegates to the UNI Global Union congress that starts in Cape Town on Sunday,” Bell wrote. “Why is the South African labour movement apparently intent on destroying itself?”
The friction within Cosatu is being watched “with horror” by international unionists, Bell says. But for those who haven’t been keeping a close eye on South Africa’s labour scene, there was little on display at Sunday’s opening congress to suggest that anything is amiss in the host country.
The narrative, instead, was focused on ‘Rainbow Nation’ feel-good vibes. And one can understand why: the international trade union movement played a vital role in rallying anti-Apartheid sentiment overseas. To be able to host the UNI congress in a democratic South Africa must feel like a vindication for older unionists in particular.
“Let us be thankful to be in South Africa in times of peace,” announced MC Aminata Keita.
The congress is a huge event, bringing together an estimated 2,000 unionists from over 100 countries. This constitutes only a fraction of the UNI Global Union’s total membership: the Swiss-based federation represents 900 unions worldwide from the services sector, with 20 million members.
Their World Congress is, Keita said, “the greatest trade union congress to ever take place on African soil”.
This milestone lent a celebratory air to Sunday’s proceedings, with delegates in African traditional dress cheerfully posing for photographs in the foyer of the Cape Town International Convention Centre. The CTICC has its own generator, thus hopefully sparing it the scenes at the World Social Forum on Migration in Johannesburg last week.
Cosatu’s general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi took to Twitter to express his frustration: “What an embarrassment!” he tweeted. “Rolling mass electricity blackouts have hit the World Social Forum on Migration. People from all over the world here.”
Vavi continued: “Why are we not rising against this? Where is Cosatu?”
At Sunday’s UNI event, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel sounded a defensive note about the current electricity crisis, perhaps by way of preparing delegates lest they open a newspaper while they’re here. Between 1890 and the start of democracy, only five million South African homes were connected to the grid, Patel said. Between the start of democracy and now, seven million homes were added.
“So in 20 years we did better than during 100 years of colonialism and Apartheid,” Patel said, to applause.
Of course, he said, in 20 years of democracy there are things that the ANC is “not proud of”.
Here he singled out the delays in providing anti-retrovirals to HIV-positive South Africans, and the “tragedy of Marikana, where a number of striking workers died”.
“Democracies are not perfect, but they are self-corrective,” Patel said: now South Africa has the largest ARV programme in the world, and a commission of inquiry into Marikana.
Patel, introduced by MC Keita as “a proud union man”, paid tribute to the historical links between the unions and the ANC, and the capacity of the unions to ensure that “the voices of the poor are heard beyond elections”. As evidence of the South African government’s pro-worker stance, he hailed its principled attitude to American corporation Wal-Mart entering the country.
“It shows that governments are not powerless in the face of globalisation,” Patel said, a sentiment again received warmly by the audience.
“Can you imagine a world without unions?” Patel asked rhetorically in conclusion. “It would be a world of the 19th century.”
The other high-profile South African speaker on the bill was Struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada, who tipped his hat to audience-member Emma Mashinini, the pioneering local unionist with whom Kathrada shares a birthday. But that was one of the only mentions Kathrada made of the unions. Explaining that he had been given neither a topic to speak on nor a designated time in which to do it, Kathrada opted to pay tribute instead to Nelson Mandela.
As is his habit, Kathrada poignantly slipped into the present tense when talking about his old Robben Island comrade. “No matter who he speaks to, kings, queens, peasants, aristocrats, he speaks with them as an equal,” he said.
On the one-year anniversary of Mandela’s death last week, Kathrada said he was asked by the media how he felt.
“I told them, I miss him every day of my life,” he said.
His voice faltering, he concluded: “Who do I turn to now? I am living in a void. I am still waiting to know: who do I turn to?”
Judging by the tweets of international delegates, Kathrada’s address was viewed as the high point of Sunday’s session. He was given the UNI Global’s ‘Freedom from Fear’ award.
Throughout the programme, there were song and dance performances to entertain delegates. One was a triumphant guide to the history of South African trade unions, culminating in the launch of Cosatu.
Zwelinzima Vavi is scheduled to address the congress on Tuesday morning. Many will be waiting eagerly to hear what picture – if any – he will paint of South Africa’s troubled labour-organising landscape.
As the International Labour Organisation’s Guy Ryder reminded delegates on Sunday, these are challenging times for unionists globally.
“The world needs a raise,” Ryder said. It is, he said, a time to “strengthen the bargaining power and voice of trade unions”. DM
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Photo: An old Soviet Union ‘global workers unite’ type poster.