Over the course of this terrible week, and as the complex and intricate labour federation— one that took apartheid-era activists decades of sweat and blood to build— tragically implodes, I've been asked time and time again: Jay, what’s going to happen next? Frankly, I have no idea.
I have no idea because no one has any idea. Not a soul involved in the terrible activities of the past week should pretend that they know where the other shoe will drop, because South Africans are now deep in an uncharted territory. Cosatu, and the vast federation of working people it once represented, played a vital role in bringing down the apartheid regime and establishing a set of goals for South Africa’s future.
We can now say with certainty that while we have achieved the nirvana of political freedom, many of the noble socio-economic goals we set have been met. Still, joblessness and the pernicious migrant labour system are still firmly in place, while poor quality education, health and basic service delivery trap the majority in the never-ending grip of poverty. Inequality has risen and millions go to bed hungry. People remain dispossessed of land or economic assets.
The cancer of hopelessness and corruption stalks our land. Our public institutions are undermined and trust in our democratic system is declining.
I’m at this stage not concerned with what happens to the careers, political or otherwise, of the players involved in this terrible saga. Unlike the men and women at the helm now, my generation of labour activists became involved with the movement in order to fight alongside working people — the folks upon whose sweat this country was built.
Those roads you drive? Someone built them, with their own hands. Someone mined the gold that paid for them. Someone quarried the aggregate. And someone poured the asphalt. That ‘someone’ — usually a horrendously underpaid migrant worker who lived in awful conditions in a hostel, far from home and family — built the country whose modern infrastructure and advanced economy we all take for granted.
I got into the union because I wanted a fairer deal for workers. I worked alongside workers — people who wanted nothing more than a fair deal and a living wage — in order to improve our society. I asked them about their aspirations. They asked me about mine. Together, we forged what would become Cosatu, the institution that channeled the workers power to help end apartheid.
Cosatu was never meant to become an unthinking adjunct of a political party.
Cosatu was never meant to slavishly work to maintain the status quo.
Cosatu was only ever meant to be an independent entity, serving workers. Nothing else, ever.
The Cosatu I knew belonged to the workers, not leaders. As leaders, of course we’ve had our differences but we worked tirelessly to build unity.
So, today, in this dark hour, I really don’t know what will become of Cosatu. And while I am bitterly disappointed, I don’t care anymore. I only care what becomes of the South African worker. And because working men and women have been betrayed by those they elected and trusted, their future looks grimmer than it has at any time since the days of institutionalized racism.
Let’s just think for a moment about the state of work in this country. The unflinching neoliberalism that has cracked open our economy has made a few people incredibly rich. The white kingpins who ran the show in the old days have bled none of their wealth. Alongside them, the bogus “re-distribution” programmes have created a narrow “new” elite, connected closely with the ruling political elites.
As for everyone else? Well, manufacturing has plummeted. Factory work is harder and harder to come by as we de-industrialize and outsource our production to “cheaper” markets, which are only cheaper because we allow them by cheerfully opening our borders to junk from afar.
The downward pressure on mining wages, driven by activist shareholders in distant capitals who seek ever bigger margins for their portfolios, has had catastrophic results. Senior leaders go to bat for mining executives, while miners are massacred with gunfire from a police force paid for by our taxes.
Students enter a job market that is more like a slave market. What their schools and universities don’t teach them is that the jobs that once powered our economy are disappearing, all thanks to the machines we’ve built in order to ease our passage through life. Google’s Sergey Brin believes that nine out of ten jobs that exist today will be gone in twenty years, wiped away by technology. He should know, because he built the machines. Make no mistake, what you think of today as a job will very soon become an anachronism, as distant as a biblical tale.
The nature of work is changing forever, while the labour federation tasked with protecting workers’ interests instead spends more time gazing up to a career path in politics or uses its energy to protect politicians than represent its members.
What is South Africa doing to prepare for the inevitable economic and social shifts wrought by technological change? Nothing.
What is South Africa doing to protect the economy from the vicissitudes of climate devastation? Almost nothing.
Today, Cosatu does very little of it was built to do. This, alongside the Marikana Massacre, must count as the single largest betrayal of the South African worker since the advent of democracy.
When I dedicated my life to the labour movement in the late-70s, in my worst nightmares I could never have envisioned a situation as bad as this. Think about it: Cosatu has expelled Numsa because they disagreed over endorsing a political party. Where does the working person square in that deal? Who is protecting workers’ interests?
That last question is the only thing that interests me. We have to get back to thinking about labour protection. We have to reconsider what it means to have a vast underclass that subsists on a poverty wage. We have to consider the demons we feed when we live in a vastly unequal society.
We have to come to terms with this New Apartheid we’ve built, a land in which the rich and the poor are separated by a massive gulf of misery, and a generation of our young are sacrificed to make a handful of people rich. The Cosatu of 1985 was built on the solid foundations of workers control and democracy, not the shifting sands of political expediency.
So ask yourself this: what’s next for the South African worker? What’s next for the constituency that increasingly feels abandoned by Cosatu? Where do they look for protection?
These are the questions that matter. These are the keys to our future.
Whoever can respond to these questions and act on them will define the future. DM
"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer