The success of the new South Africa depends on what happens in its factories and offices, which in turn depends on organised labour. David Honigmann considers whether the unions, central to bringing down apartheid, can now contain black aspirationsby David Honigmann / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
If white South Africa were a separate country, it would be roughly as rich as Spain. Black South Africa would be closer to Azerbaijan. To repair the divisions left by decades of apartheid, the government has embarked on an ambitious reconstruction and development programme, talismanically shortened to RDP. But it faces a dilemma: most RDP projects, such as housing, education and health, require large amounts of government spending, all of which require sustained economic growth. The key to achieving this will come in the workplace-the only arena where white and black South Africans regularly mingle. Only if industrial peace can be achieved has the RDP a chance of success. Industrial relations are hence crucial to the success of the new South Africa.
For most of the country’s nine million workers, however, an emphasis on long-term growth at the expense of higher standards of living may not be palatable. During the 1980s, South Africa’s newly legalised black trade unions (led by Cosatu, the Congress of South African Trade Unions) stood shoulder to shoulder with the banned African National Congress. Both were partners in the struggle; the unions complemented the work of the ANC’s guerrillas, Umkhonto we Sizwe. When victory came, unionists assumed, it would bring in a promised land for everybody, politicians and workers alike.
But a year after South Africa’s first free elections, the situation for organised labour looks in many ways worse than before. Union organisers still earn about R2,000 a month (less than ?5,000 a year), live in townships and worry constantly about their finances. Their opposite numbers in industry still live in the rich white suburbs, still earn about five times as much, still employ maids and gardeners. Wage negotiations are as hard-fought as ever, redundancies still an ever-present threat. The government as employer has committed itself to keeping wage increases well below inflation. Nelson Mandela, the president, hosts tea parties for the widows of dead white nationalists; for the unions he seems to have only grim warnings and veiled threats.
For some unionists the late 1980s and early 1990s now seem a golden age of growing influence in the affairs of state. Following the abrupt transition from struggle to social democracy the unions have lost touch with their members, fallen out with the ANC and failed to keep pace with the changing South African economy. The promised land is no longer on offer; the question facing them now is whether their members can gain anything at all from democracy.
COLD COMFORT FROM THE ECONOMY
The Pretoria/Witwatersrand/Vaal triangle, the industrial heartland of sub-Saharan Africa, now goes by the name of Gauteng, but in the rush hour it still looks like the same old Jo’burg. White commuters cruising down from the northern suburbs in BMWs mingle with the black taxis and the red and white mini-vans plying between the city centre and its shadow townships.
In 1995, the out-of-luck and out-of-work need no encouragement to come to Johannesburg-the metropolis has the second highest growth rate in Africa, the fourth in the world. The Department of Home Affairs regularly sweeps the Zairean hot-dog sellers off the streets of Hillbrow and other inner-city neighbourhoods, but no one can stop them flooding back across the leaky border with Mozambique. The country generally faces the same challenge: aside from an estimated 8.5 million illegals, its own population, currently 40.6 million, is growing nearly as fast as the economy. Tito Mboweni, the Labour Minister, calculates that to feed, house and educate these people will require growth rates of 8-10 per cent, compared with the 1987-1994 average of 1 per cent.
There is a further complication. The wind of change is blowing through southern Africa again, but this time it is bringing an end to sanctions and protective tariffs. South African industry is being propelled into the world market-place. It is finding that in many instances it is unable to compete.
Mark Anstey, of the University of Port Elizabeth, is a genial prophet of doom. “Africa has 1.8 per cent of world GDP; South Africa has a quarter of that. That makes it a South American country. But the global economy is going to wipe out many companies here. The complexity of the task is stunning. Even at present, only 8 per cent of job-seekers find jobs.”
A mining house policy adviser is even more blunt. “If I were an investor coming here, I’d have to have my eyes wide open to the fact that things happen here which defy comprehension: a dispute at one of our mines about which bus company to use will leave tens, maybe hundreds dead. Or there will be an accusation of witchcraft, and a factory will down tools for a month”.
The battleground for the unions is productivity. South African workers are paid relatively little: the minimum rate for an automobile assembler is about R2,000 a month. But output is low: a General Motors/Toyota joint venture in California produces 205,000 vehicles a year with 4,200 employees; the whole South African auto assembly industry produces fewer than 300,000 cars with its workforce of 37,000.
The unions point the finger elsewhere. The National Productivity Institute reckons that 60 per cent of South Africa’s total paybill goes in salaries and only 40 per cent in wages. “While many employers want to compare their employees’ wages to those in Indonesia,” argues Cosatu’s research arm, “they expect to compare their own management earnings with their European counterparts. At management level this country pays first world salaries.” And when workers do improve productivity, the immediate consequence is often job losses.
Chris Lloyd of Numsa, the metalworkers’ union, is blunt. “You’ve got to understand the nature of unions in South Africa, where most officials are SACP [South African Communist Party] members. Words such as ‘productivity’ are words of capitalism, if not words of the devil. The unions say: do we even want to be more productive?”
There is certainly a perception that unions demand wage increases far in excess of inflation, currently running at 6.4 per cent. Demands are often pitched much higher, but actual settlements are always much lower. And union negotiators who settle at close to the inflation rate may actually be damaging the real living standards of their members. Inflation figures are based on the spending breakdown of white households. This understates the proportion of income that most people spend on food-and food prices have risen 50 per cent faster than other goods. In 1992 alone, food prices rose by 38.9 per cent, as against official inflation of 13.9 per cent. The South African Township Annual reckons the budget needed to sustain a five-person family for a month at a modestly low standard of living at R1,784. Minimum wages are often well below that.
There are many who are worse off. Only 3 or 4 per cent of last year’s school leavers are expected to find jobs in the formal economy. More than two-fifths of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 30 are unemployed. The official unemployment rate is 33 per cent, with a further 2.5 million to 3 million working outside the formal sector, often in subsistence-level jobs such as selling starfruit to passing motorists. Of those employed in the formal economy nearly half of all blacks––2.5 million people––work in what the Household Survey describes as “elementary occupations.” Nearly two-thirds of whites occupy white-collar jobs, compared with about a fifth of blacks.
This has led to talk of the unions––with about 3.2 million members out of a working population of 9 million––representing a “labour elite.” But when it is suggested that their wage demands punish the unemployed, the unions reply that in a country with no welfare system their members are the only people supporting those without work.
COSATU IN CRISIS?
Driving to downtown Johannesburg for a meeting at Numsa, I found the roads blocked by police and all the railway bridges leading into the central business district sealed off. When I telephoned my contact, it caught him unawares. “Are there any demonstrations booked for today?” I heard him asking, hand cupped over the receiver, and then an explosion of rueful laughter. “Jesus, Enoch, you’re the general secretary of the biggest black union in the country: how can a major demonstration be happening without you knowing about it?” In this case, the trouble turned out to have been caused by another flare-up of Soweto’s Homeric taxi wars. But it is quite conceivable that a big workers’ demonstration might be taking place without the knowledge of union leaders.
Some argue that Cosatu, and by implication the whole of the union movement, is in crisis. The unions have lost talent into government (notably Jay Naidoo, Cosatu’s former general secretary, now co-ordinating the RDP, and Cyril Ramaphosa of the mineworkers, now ANC general secretary), the civil service and civil society generally, and will lose more; because of this, they have drifted away from their members and lost clout with the government. “Cosatu was Jay Naidoo”, says Chris Lloyd. “Sam Shilowa [his successor] is finding it a very hard act to follow.”
Companies keen to display their affirmative action credentials have promoted shop stewards by the score. “Shop stewards have shown that they’re good at managing people, so they’re attractive to management,” says Gavin Hartford, Numsa’s chief bargainer for auto-assembly. Affirmative action is a business buzzword. As soon as it became clear that apartheid was doomed, companies began scrabbling for black managers to display their non-racist credentials. Affirmative action is resented bitterly by many whites, especially the new graduates who see themselves as paying the price for a system from which they never had the chance to benefit. The white Mynwerkersunie has taken strike action against affirmative action programmes in power stations and steel mills.
But the black unions are sceptical as well. At top level, there are too few obvious black candidates to go round, so companies have simply embroiled themselves in a poaching war which has inflated salaries by up to 50 per cent. “We try to train and skill people,” says one conglomerate personnel chief, “but we don’t pay a premium for skin colour so we lose them. We’re training people for the South African economy, not for ourselves.” Many of the jobs end up going to citizens of other African nations or to African-Americans. The unions want employers to empower and train employees from the shop floor, but that is too long term a solution for most companies and, in any case, worsens the exodus of union talent. Losses can be severe. When Hartford returned to his Port Elizabeth office from his summer break this year and phoned the union branches at the seven car plants, he found that six had lost their entire leadership-to non-governmental organisations, churches, and management.
The careers of defectors are not always happy. Shop stewards turned foremen face hostility––and violence––from their former colleagues, and management finds that it has broken up a union system which functioned as a surrogate personnel department. But there are worse ways to be lost to the movement. Union activism has always been dangerous, increasing the likelihood of assassination or disappearance. But the end of apartheid has not made it any safer. In the slow-motion war in the KwaZulu/Natal midlands, the largely pro-ANC shop stewards are easy targets. Numsa has been losing about 50 shop stewards a year to murder.
Further losses loom. November’s local elections swept one last tranche out of the unions into politics, with the losses concentrated at shop floor level, where the unions can least afford them. And staffing the proposed national conciliation service (see box) will require a further raid on union talent.
The South African labour elite also faces a psychological challenge. For many, the struggle against apartheid was all-consuming and seemingly never-ending: only by telling themselves that the overthrow of white rule would change everything could they carry on. But many of the easier changes were already won before the handover of power, and victory has only brought harder problems. “The pressures are far more greater now than they were under apartheid,” reflects Gavin Hartford. “Then, our policy was: get rid of the bastards, fight the bosses, fight the government. Now we’re faced with a range of issues: Gatt, rationalisation, the government intervening in labour disputes.”
Union work can take a huge personal toll. Thulani Dlamini of the Transport and General Workers’ Union lost his first marriage when he was the target of anti-union violence in Natal. His wife wanted him to abandon his union work, but, he says coldly, “I wasn’t prepared to put one individual before the majority.” His second marriage broke up because the demands of organising a mobile population of truckers meant that he was never at home. Union work also pays poorly. Without the psychic benefits of the struggle, other opportunities may well prove more appealing. Chris Lloyd thinks that union activists have failed to adjust. “We’re still living in the world of Leninist rhetoric, while managers are spouting the new management jargon. An organiser who’s spent his whole life dealing with applied Marxist bullshit is fucked dealing with Kaizen.” The problems didn’t start when the ANC won the election. Rapid growth had already stretched unions to their limits, and even the bigger, older unions often have only the sketchiest idea of how many members they have.
SLEEPING WITH THE ANC
It is the union movement’s strained relations with the government which have hit hardest. In theory, everything should be rosy: Cosatu is a partner in the triple alliance with the ANC (the third is the South African Communist Party), and the political climate should be much more favourable for the unions than it was under apartheid. And in many ways it is: the ANC is-at least publicly-committed to a programme in the interests of workers.
But the government has a tricky course to steer. On the one hand it desperately wants to bring jobs and capital into South Africa. Net foreign direct investment has leapt from $10 million in 1993 to $400 million in 1994, and the government wants to increase it further. Now that currency restrictions are being loosened, it also wants to avoid scaring the markets and well-qualified whites. So the scope for redistribution is small. The ANC’s first budget only edged the top tax rate up slightly, to 45 per cent; unpopular with the rich, yet hardly penal.
But a sizeable minority of ANC voters are unemployed or only nominally employed. If the leadership does not look after their interests, they have other places to go: either to the populist mavericks inside the broad church of the ANC (Winnie Mandela, Peter Mokaba, Bantu Holomisa) or to more radical parties such as the currently quiescent Pan-Africanist Congress. While Mandela remains president, the ANC will hold together. But he has said that he will step down in 1999; and if there has been no visible progress by then, other voices will be heard.
The ANC’s loyalty to Cosatu has to be tempered with pragmatism. If the unions flex their muscle, they may scare off foreign investors. If they push up wage rates too far, it may come at the expense of new job creation. The government is also bitter about a wave of strikes soon after the elections (in the car industry and in the retailer Pick’n’Pay) which gave the appearance that South Africa had descended into industrial anarchy, and tarnished the ANC’s honeymoon with the voters. In fact, the total number of days lost was little higher than in 1993 and much lower than in many previous years. But appearances counted for a lot in those early days and the ANC felt let down by Cosatu.
The ride soon got bumpier. Faced with wildcat strikes and with a rise in hostage-taking, Mandela condemned “anarchy and lawlessness.” His words were taken by his allies in the unions as a coded shot across their bows. John Gomomo, Cosatu’s president, warned publicly against “interference in strikes and the rights of workers.” Privately, Sam Shilowa, Cosatu’s general secretary, insisted that “We should avoid creating mass hysteria and a witch-hunt.”
The government’s subsequent attempts to reform labour law (see box) displeased the unions which were initially uncertain how to react and then decided they wanted more. The unions’ eventual position on the draft proposals was to demand key changes to make strikes easier. They called a programme of “rolling mass action,” a series of one-day strikes throughout June. The employers threatened to walk out of talks. Amid an escalating war of words, Mandela appeared to reverse his previous tough line and to support the demonstrators. “The right to protest is one of our most important weapons,” he told them. “You are entitled to use this right and the ANC is right behind you.” But it became clear that Mandela’s support was carefully hedged. His intervention may have had more to do with the local elections than with any change of heart by the government. Eventually Mboweni brokered a compromise. The bill is now likely to become law in 1996.
Cosatu will stick with the ANC: it has no other option. But murmurs of a Workers’ Party which is independent of the ANC will continue. In many ways the unions face the same bind as the ANC: they have to disappoint their members in the short term, in the belief that life for ordinary blacks will improve in the long term.
The dilemma is acute: for the first time in their history the black trade unions have a broadly sympathetic government. But if they seem to cosy up to their former friends, their members may lose faith in them. Some commentators talk of a “democratic rupture” between unions and the shopfloor. If members feel that change is too slow, it leaves a gap for the far left to exploit. Telling people who have waited decades for democracy that they will have to wait even longer for prosperity is not easy. It is especially hard when they can see white South Africans continuing to enjoy their affluent lives as if nothing had changed.