Opinionista Rehad Desai 28 September 2016

In the name of democracy?

Captains of industry have been urging our ruling party to introduce a number of changes to laws governing labour relations. The ANC has readily accepted the argument that something must be done to prevent more strikes and counteract worker militancy. New legislation is presently being debated at Nedlac. In essence similar arrangements are now being imposed at our universities.

Secret Ballots – more or less democracy

Proponents of such change argue that people voting on whether or not to strike must vote in secret, much like when we vote in elections. They argue it would be more democratic. The more radically minded argue against such measures because workers (and students) are more confident to fight when they assemble together to debate, argue and vote. Collective strength is most acutely felt when we come together in our numbers.

Introducing ballots runs counter to the traditions established in the 1980s by workers, students and communities united around the demand for democracy. Direct and participatory forms of democracy were critical to mass mobilisation. So enduring, they have also played an important part in shaping our Constitution which enshrines the right to strike.

Secret ballots mean decisions are taken in isolation from one another, encouraging workers and students to see themselves as individuals, rather than as citizens and as a class. It promotes a more conservative attitude, which is reinforced while the vote is being organised, conducted and counted.

Forked tongue

Conservative trade union leaders and many of our Vice Chancellors (VCs) welcome such moves as they generally detest strikes and shutdowns. They continuously seek ways to combat the influence of worker and student militants, often a minority in the general workforce and university student population. Despite this, a lip service to the principle of worker-controlled unions and student representation through the SRCs if often declared.

But when workers and students do take control and go out on strike/shutdown, it often proves difficult to get them to go back quickly; trade union officials and VCs are faced with pressures from two competing sides.

For the VCs, legitimate student demands for more equality on the one side and the government and corporations who provide the bulk of funding on the other. For the trade union officials, their members needs on the one side and the management on the other.

The social location of the trade union and university leaderships within our society lead them to become a distinctly conservative social layer.

Our VCs are tasked with managing contradictions of a system that the better ones are opposed to on an abstract level but on a concrete or contractual level are duty-bound to uphold. Similarly, our trade union leaders become “the lieutenants of capital”, given their role which can be reduced to negotiating the terms of exploitation.

Surely we should stand opposed to any outside interference in the affairs of the trade and student unions. Furthermore, only lend our support to trade union officials and elected student leaders while they are carrying through democratically arrived at decisions. And when they act as a constraint to mandated action, openly oppose them.

Introducing a secret ballot at universities on whether the shutdown should be allowed to continue is seen by many as a naked attempt to marshal the silent majority – an attempt to buttress the inherent systemic inequality in higher education that the government seems intent on maintaining. Perhaps most disconcerting, to interfere from the outside with the right of the elected SRC to act on the basis of democratic mandate.

Whose side is the ANC on?

The ANC argues that the so-called national interest must trump all other interests. Forced arbitration – this is where government has the right to end a strike – is what they are seeking. The right to end strikes when they threaten severe disruption of the economy or social stability, meaning when they are violent.

It is argued that workers are just one section of society and that the right to strike needs to be balanced against the general interests of wider society. This sounds very familiar to those who trumpet the interests of the silent majority whose right to learn is being violated by a violent, militant, vanguardist minority.

Gwede Mantashe has made his preference clear – close down universities for long periods of time.

Who pays for the economic crisis?

Are secret ballots not an attempt to make working-class folk in the factories and universities pay for the economic crisis? In the case of higher education, year on year significant decreases in government subsidies have been the norm. In turn, universities have increased tuition fees.

The most severe impact has been on working-class families. Each year, 200,000 students have been excluded from entering university because of financial constraints. Fifty percent of all students are unable to complete their degrees in large part for the same reason.

Can it be argued that those proposing secret ballots want the right to keep the South African economy structured on the apartheid wage gap? The old South Africa sought to use white supremacy to keep labour cheap; the new South Africa seeks to use the black and white economic elite to do the same.

History continues to inform us that the demands of the working class for equality in wages and free education have rarely been won without unfettered militancy. Our elites want the power to stop strikes before they are able to cause the capitalist project pain. The point of strike action and shutdowns is to force those in power to listen and concede.

It would seem the secret ballot in these two instances is nothing but a tool to maintain our deepening inequality and is part and parcel of the slippery slope towards a more authoritarian order. DM

Rehad Desai is a filmmaker, author of the Emmy Award-winning Miners Shot Down. His latest film The Giant is Falling will be released shortly. He is also a socialist activist and spokesman for the Marikana Support Campaign.


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