Freedom of association, the right of workers to organise, collective bargaining, and trade unions, in general, are cornerstones of South Africa’s democracy. As well they should be. Workers need their unions to represent them. It would be disingenuous of us to believe that unions, like any other social movement – most especially those umbilically tied to the ruling ANC – are incorruptible, or that their leaders or members always operate in good faith.
It’s worth remembering, when we reflect on the corruption, maladministration and various forms of capture (state, institutional and cognitive), that Cosatu is in the alliance that has governed the country for the past 25 years. Never mind that some of Cosatu’s key figures now endeavour to place themselves on the right side of history…
The Covid-19 pandemic, or at least the state’s efforts to contain the pandemic, appears to have been, or has been described as, decisions made as hostages of trade unions, a persistent issue of vested interests. While there are, indeed, very good reasons for keeping children out of schools – there is a strong argument to be made for saving lives (as a first-order priority), and for the state to assist with helping preserve livelihoods – we have to ensure that the state is able to make decisions without unions acting in bad faith.
This is not an argument for union-busting. No. It is an argument based on an understanding, and evidence, over time and place, of corruption among trade unions, and of racketeering, especially where unions are beholden to criminal syndicates, and where individual members – especially teachers (in South Africa) – spend more time on their “business on the side” than on preparing the next generation of political and business leaders, professionals in law, medicine, information and communications technology, industry, manufacturing and so on.
A history of unions and organised crime
One of the great dangers of South African politics is, and has always been, the idea that we are, somehow, exceptional. Part of this is the belief that our political leaders – especially the governing alliance of ANC, SACP and Cosatu – can always be trusted, and always act selflessly and in good faith.
It’s rather tragic that one can state, axiomatically, that the much of the ruling alliance is corrupt to the bone. While individuals in the ANC and SACP have been the main focus of the various forms of capture, the unions and their individual leaders and members have slipped under the radar, as it were. However, history shows us that, across polities, trade unions are not always ethical, democratic, and nor do they play a politically neutral role – whatever the prevailing polity may be.
For example, when Mohamed Morsi was elected as president of Egypt in June 2012, the unions played an important role, lobbying for his removal, explained journalist and unionist Wael Tawfiq after a brief summer school in Cairo, “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”. Workers’ movements faced enormous blowback after the removal of Morsi.
Communist and capitalist societies have their own iniquitous relationships with trade unions. Evidence from the former Soviet Union to the United States demonstrates that union leaders are easy to manipulate. Leon Trotsky described the former Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers’ state” in which trade unions were part of, and subservient to the state bureaucracy – all of which were controlled by the central committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In other words, unions were a mere cipher for the dictatorship.
At the other end of the spectrum, in capitalist America, unions have been bought, sold and traded in seedy alleyways, on the backseats of limousines and in smoky backrooms to organised criminal groups. To have a sense of how odious trade unions can be in capitalist societies, at one stage in Chicago during the early 1980s, there were an estimated 85 labour organisations with 20 separate national, international or independent parent unions associated with, influenced or controlled by individual or organised criminals.
Tail wagging the dog
In South Africa, trade union federation Cosatu, which is part of the ruling alliance, and especially the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and the Public Servants Association of South Africa (politically non-aligned) have flexed their power and regularly threaten to bring the state to a halt.
When the unions show up, the state and industry freeze, which may help explain why productivity in the state and private sector is low, why there are what seem to be insurmountable service delivery problems. There are, of course, several other factors to take into consideration. But the basic point is that the unions, especially for their role as part of the ruling alliance, have the power to bring the state to a standstill.
The teachers union, in particular, has held the ruling allies hostage, as Sipho Masondo has reported. It is, also, an open secret that Sadtu has itself “captured the state” and has been associated with unethical behaviour several times – most prominent of which has been demanding bribes for jobs.
The takeaway from all this is that we know that the alliance that governs South Africa – the ANC, SACP and Cosatu – are steeped in corruption like a well-sugared koeksister. When Sadtu demanded, with good reason, that the state should shut down all schools until after the Covid pandemic has reached its peak, the state made the similarly valid statement that any decision to close schools would be taken by Cabinet.
Whom do we listen to as the most authoritative voice on a crucial matter; the unions or the state? Unions insist, then, on playing a political role and holding the state hostage if and when they feel it benefits them. Corruption among South African unions is a slow-burning fire. In 2019 Cosatu and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa warned unions about corruption, and especially for “not complying with the law” and lacking in “financial accountability”.
We have two main issues, as things stand. One is the corruption among South African trade unions, and how the ANC’s alliance partner has escaped closer scrutiny in the State Capture process led by Judge Raymond Zondo. This is especially critical in the context of claims that the state was being “captured” by Sadtu.
The other is the way that unions, and other movements such as the Congress of South African Students (Cosas), are starting to interfere with the state’s obligations to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week, Cosas issued a statement calling on teachers to boycott schools. Cosas has also threatened to shut down private schools – because they are capitalists that are putting the lives of learners at stake. As a general statement, the student body — established by the ANC in exile and created for the purposes of “student-worker action” — has vowed to disrupt schooling if the state goes ahead with re-opening schools for all learners.
In the final analysis, Cosatu, Sadtu and Cosas are part of the ruling alliance, and it seems as if the tail is wagging the dog in managing the pandemic. The ANC has tough choices to make in the face of its declining popularity and pressure from the public and from within. None of this suggests that trade unions should be abolished. It just means that unions, too, can be corrupt, act in bad faith and in their own interest.
What it does suggest is that if the ANC breaks with its trades union alliance, it may be able to get work done faster. Such a move would mean that the ANC becomes a conventional political party and breaks with the cumbersome “consultation with structures” in the ruling alliance that can drag policy implementation to a halt. This is a risk that the ANC leaders do not seem to have the courage to take. The ANC is always looking towards its base and the next election.
In the meantime, the Covid-19 virus requires hard decisions from the president, who, for now, seems to spend a lot of time “pacifying” unions over school closure – that, anyway, is what the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance believes. There is some truth in there somewhere. DM
"There is no escape — we pay for the violence of our ancestors." ~ Frank Herbert