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‘Authoritarianism for Beginners’: The crisis of leadership in Samwu and the union movement

Dale T McKinley is a long-time political activist, researcher-writer and lecturer and has been involved in social movement, community and political struggles in South and Southern Africa for over three decades. He presently works as a research and education officer at the International Labour, Research & Information Group – ILRIG.

The South African Municipal Workers Union is in crisis as ordinary members rebel against national office bearers they accuse of gross financial mismanagement and undermining their constitution. The officials have struck back with a purge of members who’ve asked difficult questions. The case heads to court on Monday.

In his crazed magnum opus Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler said, “… the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over…” While the national office bearers (NOBs) of the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) or that of several other Cosatu affiliates are certainly no Nazis, they have most definitely been taking Hitler’s advice to heart.

In the face of recurring charges made by many union officials and ordinary members of financial mismanagement and fraud, ignoring and undermining decisions of constitutional structures as well as bureaucratic and political victimisation of those asking questions and demanding accountability, these ‘leaders’ have dutifully followed a Hitleresqe propaganda model.

The actions and messaging go something like this:

  • Instead of opening up the finance and investment books for democratic scrutiny they have, like many of their government counterparts, secretised and manipulated access to the relevant information. In the same breath, they have told their constituency the charges of fraud and corruption are nothing but the imaginaries of traitorous “hooligans” and “ill-disciplined” malcontents. Message: ‘Trust us. Don’t impugn our revolutionary dignity with such nonsense!”

  • Rather than respect and abide by the processes and decisions of constitutional bodies in the union, they have portrayed themselves as the sole custodians of organisational authority and democracy. Those ‘renegade’ bodies who do not accept such commandist ‘authority’ are then, through bureaucratic manoeuvring and dictate, replaced or dismantled. Message: ‘Obey your supreme leaders. Do as we say but not as we do!’

  • As opposed to listening to those within their ranks who raise legitimate questions, criticise the ‘leaders’’ actions and utterances and demand basic democratic accountability, they enforce ‘discipline’ through unilateral suspensions, dismissals and expulsions. Having learned a thing or two from their political commissars in the SACP, the favourite trumped-up charges are “bringing the union into disrepute” and “attempting to form a new union”. Message: ‘Shut up or else. End of story”.

All of this has been playing itself out right in front of our eyes for some time within much of the union movement. Tragically though, the propaganda model employed has, to a large extent, succeeded in obscuring and deflecting the concomitant realities in a self-serving shroud of political and organisational mysticism. However, the ongoing and escalating crisis within Samwu has now more fully exposed the hidden cancer that is eating away at the union body politic.

The sparks that set off the present fire in Samwu are as simple as they are telling. The source, in each case, has been the union’s NOBs riding roughshod over the mandates and decisions of constitutional structures.

First was their appointment in 2012 of a service provider for the union’s photocopier contract that had not even been shortlisted by the relevant national finance committee and whose quote was the most expensive by far. As a result, Samwu is now paying R6-million more than what was recommended.

Soon thereafter, the finance committee and the union’s central executive committee (CEC) uncovered the transfer of tens of millions of rands from the union’s reserve account – which houses the members’ strike fund as well as education and funeral reserves – to the completely separate operational account from which things such as administration and salaries are paid.

What raised the alarm was that these transfers were done without the required approval of the finance committee and the CEC and that financial statements from 2013 showed Samwu had an operating surplus of over R7-million. More specifically, examples such as millions being ostensibly spent on “fully fitted kitchens on every floor” of the building, when in fact there is only one floor with such a kitchen.

Further, it was found that the NOBs had unilaterally spent an additional R19-million over and above the amount approved by the CEC and the national executive committee on renovations to the union’s headquarters building. Simultaneously, it came to light the NOBs had, again without the necessary approval, extended the contract of a supposedly “qualified engineering company” initially hired for a period of four months to be the project manager for the building.

The result is that the ‘consultant’ has been paid over R6-million while renovations remain unfinished and the building has yet to receive an official clearance certificate by the building inspectorate.

In every case, the legitimate oversight and questions raised by the very officials and members mandated to do so have been met by the NOBs ‘deploying’ the propaganda model as described above. Matters came to a head in April this year when a majority of provinces on the CEC voted to suspend the NOBs and for an independent forensic audit to be conducted. When other provinces asked for an extension to consult with their members, this was granted for 21 days after which the CEC would meet again.

However, no sooner had the April CEC ended than the NOBs embarked on a slew of suspensions, dismissals and expulsions. To date, a total of 45 provincial leaders, shop stewards and union officials who asked the questions and tried to hold the NOBs to account have fallen under the NOBs’ blunt axe.

Here is where the underlying political and organisational approach of the ‘supreme leaders’ becomes even clearer. Giving the middle finger to any notion of union democracy, they have used every trick in the ‘Authoritarianism for Beginners’ handbook to avoid basic accountability and undermine worker control.

In gross violation of their own union constitution and the labour laws of the country, the NOBs have provided no charge sheets, proffered no specific evidence and held not a single properly constituted hearing in respect of those they have unilaterally suspended, dismissed and expelled. Moreover, they have continued to refuse to conduct an independent forensic audit and instead have used hand-picked officials and members to conduct an ‘internal investigation’ whose recently released report is nothing more than a thinly disguised whitewash.

Just last week when a number of Gauteng shop stewards tried to enter the headquarters to hold a meeting, they were beaten, pepper-sprayed and shot at by private security and bodyguards hired by the NOBs. True to form, the Samwu general secretary issued a statement calling the workers violent “hooligans”. Meanwhile, the NOBs have effectively abandoned their actual jobs. During this entire year, there has been no wage curve settlement, no wage increases and no worker campaigns. Lonmin would be proud.

Those officials and members who are victims of the NOBs’ hatchet job alongside ordinary members are fighting back, though. They have launched the ‘Save our Samwu’ (SOS) campaign which, according to its leaders, has the support of a majority of provinces. In direct contrast to the NOBs who have remained virtually shuttered in the Samwu HQ building, the campaign has held over 100 meetings with ordinary members across the country over the last several months. These meetings have given overwhelming support to those who have been ousted by the NOBs and the momentum is being carried forward to the upcoming South Gauteng High Court Case – on 15 September [Monday] – where SOS will try and overturn “the arbitrary suspensions, dismissals and expulsions”.

Contrary to the predictable propaganda from the NOBs that SOS is externally funded and wants to start a new union, the worker-driven campaign has clearly stated it is simply committed to “returning Samwu to being under the control of its members”. Further, SOS wants “to ensure that never again will the union’s accounts be shrouded in secrecy… and that where maladministration has taken place, those responsible are dealt with under the provisions of the union’s constitution”.

Counter-revolutionary talk indeed!

How the crisis in Samwu plays itself out will tell us a great deal about not only the present political and organisational trajectory of Samwu and Cosatu but about the future of the union movement in South Africa. DM



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