Defend Truth


We have a couple of small elephants in the trade union room threatening to trample on everything we have built


Karl Cloete is the former Numsa Deputy General Secretary. He writes in his personal capacity. (Photo: Netwerk24)

What has become of our trade union leadership? Leaders of the working class today speak about poverty and the poor but live in luxury. They want to nationalise everything under the sun, but privatise by accumulating to themselves wealth that is created by workers.

A sad story about the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (Ceppwawu) is but one example of the rot in unions today:

In June 2020, the Labour Court appointed an administrator to administer the union’s affairs after it failed to provide audited financial statements for the financial years 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

For more than a decade there has been an intense internal struggle in Ceppwawu for control of the union’s investment company, which at the time had more than R4-billion in assets. Today, the investment company executives and the union leadership have difficulty explaining how that R4-billion is down to about R1-billion.

On 17 January 2022, Sunday World reported that the Registrar of Labour Relations opened the door for a full-scale investigation into the running of the union’s affairs by the appointed administrator. The union’s president alleged in an affidavit that the administrator paid the union’s former general secretary, Simon Mofokeng, just more than R1-million as a “retrenchment package”. Mofokeng gave new meaning to business unionism when he operated as the general secretary while having a business interest in Sasol.

In June 2019, Khanya College published a very instructive short article about the “collapse of trade unions in South Africa”. It read:

“In South Africa, the most powerful trade unions are on the brink of collapse because of the introduction of investment companies into the trade union movement. Unions supported their work through subscription and sponsorship. To a large extent the activities of the unions were implemented and they organised workers, however now their primary goal is to take money from workers through subscriptions and put them in investments. Unions have succumbed to the capitalist system and there are endless fights of misuse of money and leadership pocketing workers’ money.”

Since 1994 we have seen many trade unionists become millionaires and billionaires. Their stepping stones almost always started with them being deployed from the union or federation into the government, serving as parliamentarians, Cabinet ministers and then leaving the government for business. Unions and federations like Cosatu, NUM, Numsa, SACTWU and Fawu have all seen this development.

What has become of our trade union leadership?

We can easily sum up the disturbing developments in unions and working-class formations by simply looking at the utterances, behaviour and conduct of union and working-class leaders, which are there for all to see and hear.

Leaders of the working class speak about poverty and the poor but live in luxury.

Leaders of the working class want to nationalise everything under the sun, but privatise by accumulating to themselves wealth that is created by workers.

Leaders of the working class speak humility but practise self-advancement and put their interests before those of workers.

Leaders of the working class state out loud their hatred for the greedy bosses and argue “each according to his needs”, but crass materialism is their daily diet.

Leaders of the working class speak socialism during the day but count their ill-gotten gains by night. Enough for them is never enough.

Leaders of the working class quote Che Guevara and say “a revolutionary is guided by feelings of love”. But in reality they plot and plan the demise of other union comrades and the elimination of those with different views.

Working-class leaders stand by in silence when the hard-earned subscriptions of union members are stolen and distributed among a chosen few.

Deep down we all know that “silence is not an option”. Silence is betrayal.

The attributes of trade unionists of the 1980s are missing in action.

In my humble view the breed of trade union activists of the 1980s is slowly dying out and there is no conscious and deliberate effort to trace and embrace the attributes of those activists. For me, these activist attributes lie in the following values we saw practised in the Eighties: selfless and servant leadership which does not impose their views on workers; and a cadre who could give direction to workers without dictating to them.

Today we have domineering and power-hungry leaders in our midst whose very existence is about I, I and I.

We know of incorruptible officials and shop stewards who were trusted to collect subscriptions by hand and who accounted for every cent collected from workers. Today, business unionism has transformed our shop stewards into selling funeral benefits rather than defending workers to the best of their ability.

The “Each One Teach One” philosophy resulted in activists of the 1980s managing the art of training shop stewards with the aim of those shop stewards becoming better than the tutor. This was consciously done so that workers did not have to have an overreliance on organisers, but could act themselves against their exploitative bosses at the point of production.

In the Eighties we saw the deployment of dedicated trade union education and training to ensure that workers understood that there are two classes in a class-divided society – the proletariat and the capitalists – and that everything that governs the so-called labour market is shaped by the battle between these two contending classes.

Today there is a quiet effort to get workers to understand the so-called human side of capitalism. This has gradually disarmed workers over the years to the point where they have been stripped of their militancy.

How, then, do we remedy the decay and degeneration?

Workers join trade unions voluntarily in the hope that unions will improve their conditions of employment and benefits; defend them against discrimination and exploitation; guarantee a safe and healthy environment in the workplace; and in the event that they become unemployed, represent their best interests beyond the workplace and in the community.

If we are to arrest this trend, the following may lay the basis to reverse the downward spiral in the union movement:

  • Workers who become members of trade unions are entitled to, and must demand to see and receive, union reports of whatever is done in their name. This presupposes that shop stewards who represent members in their respective workplaces must be more accountable, mandate-taking stewards who report back more often than what is currently the case;
  • When employed, union members must insist that union investment companies are not the answer to their economic and social challenges. In fact, union investment companies must be rejected for the capitalist demons they are, as must be the profit-maximisation logic it represents at the expense of members of the union. Fighting for the creation of worker and community cooperatives must be their occupation and struggle;
  • When employed, union members must insist that their unions have a dedicated programme and projects for when they become unemployed. Too often members are good enough when they pay their subscriptions every week but once they are out of the union, for whatever reason, and they become unemployed, they are relegated to untold hardship. Setas are but one source unions can use to provide skills-training programmes to their members who become victims of retrenchments and company closures;
  • The culture of buying the loyalty of shop stewards and office bearers with wine, whisky, beer, five-star hotel caucuses, rental vehicles, flights, soccer matches in a booth next to businessmen and other such luxuries, must be defeated and uprooted if unions are to represent the real interests of workers and their members. It is amazing how personality cults and cultism have found root in progressive trade unions that call themselves revolutionary and socialist-oriented trade unions; and
  • Above all, a renewed vigour in rolling out trade union education will go a long way towards stemming the tide against business unionism and yellow-trade unionism. The struggle for the transformation of once progressive trade unions is now.

In conclusion

I plead that we shed cowardice, throw away the fear of job losses or purging in unions, personal attacks and death threats, and become steadfast to speak truth to power.

Raising our levels of consciousness is one way out of this disaster, but we must also live out our class and revolutionary consciousness with courage and conviction, without fear or favour. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    In terms of the headline – don’t worry about the small elephants … watch out for the Juju bull in the China shop ! Not Xi’s china shop though … he is going to rule the world … that is if Putin does not beat him to it ! Mind you … maybe they will (or have already) formed a partnership and share the spoils ? Not sure how many can feed at that trough though !

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