David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
South African Unions Will Ensure an ANC Victory
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO (1/14/94) - If Nelson Mandela's African National Congress wins the first post-apartheid national elections in South Africa on April 27, the Congress of South African Trade Unions will become the most powerful labor federation in Africa, and one of the most powerful in the world. South African trade unionists will become part of the new ANC government. They will play a key role in detemining the course of economic development in the post-apartheid era.

COSATU leaders have fanned out across the globe in the months since the April election date was set, seeking international support from unions, especially in the industrial countries. Making international connections is not unusual for COSATU and ANC leaders - the fight for international sanctions was a key part of their strategy for isolating the South African government, and deepening the economic crisis for the apartheid regime. But COSATU and the ANC are no longer seeking international economic sanctions. Now they are appealing for solidarity needed to win the election.

As part of this international effort, COSATU General Secretary Jay Naidoo came to San Francisco in October, where he addressed the AFL-CIO's national convention, and asked unions to send observers and election experts to South Africa. Other COSATU leaders have visited Canada and European countries, making the same request. And in response, union anti-apartheid activists are making the trek to Johannesburg, lending their expertise to a campaign whose strategy is new to the seasoned campaigners of the ANC and COSATU - an election in which black South Africans will be able to vote for the first time in their lives.

The April elections will dismantle the old apartheid structure, built on the denial of basic economic and political rights to the Black majority. Those who held power in the old system will hold it no longer. Their places will be taken by representatives of organizations like the ANC and the non-racial trade unions, which were illegal until just two years ago.

Twenty national COSATU leaders have been chosen to run for the new, non-racial parliament. Naidoo himself, as well as Moses Mayekiso, head of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, and defendant in one of South Africa's notorious treason trials, will give up their union positions to become candidates with Mandela at the top of the ANC list.

Throughout the past six months, the industrial unions which make up COSATU have held conventions to decide how to participate in the election process. Their conventions led to a special COSATU congress, which outlined the union's program for a post-apartheid South Africa, and voted to campaign for an ANC victory.

The union's main concern is the reconstruction of South Africa's economy. "For us, freedom means more than the right to vote," Naidoo emphasized. "We must address the real legacy of apartheid - the exclusion of the Black majority, who live in absolute poverty worse than many African countries, beside some of the most affluent people in the world."

While negotiations to end apartheid have gone on over the past year, the South African government has moved quickly to privatize as much as possible of the enormous state enterprises which constitute the heart of the country's industrial economy, thus removing them from the control of a new ANC government. New industrial investment is practically nonexistent. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund advise South Africa to take advantage of wages up to ten times lower than those in Taiwan to concentrate on labor intensive industries for export, including the production of steel, coal, garments and shoes.

COSATU opposes these plans for creating a low-wage, export economy. It calls for a 14% wage increase to compensate for declining living standards, and a halt to layoffs which have brought unemployment to as much as 50% for Black workers. In negotiations around the proposed constitution, recently approved by the ANC and the South African government, COSATU protested proposals which would have allowed employers to lockout strikers, and guaranteed the jobs of the all-white civil service.

"We have to have an economic program," Naidoo declared, "that can deliver the goods to our people, and ensure their vote is not meaningless. That program has to redistribute wealth in a way that ensures that ordinary people have basic human rights - the right to a home, to a job at a living wage, to education and training, and the right to proper health care. We need to go into government to defend a workers' agenda."

In many African countries, trade union leaders often become ministers of labor. But COSATU will not only be in charge of employment issues in a new ANC government. Many observers expect that Naidoo, who after Mandela is one of the country's most popular leaders, will have charge of the country's economic development program as a whole.

COSATU represents 1.7 million members. It is a federation of unions representing all sections of the workforce, organized on the principle of "one industry, one union." The presence of its leaders on the ANC's list of candidates reflects an alliance that began when federation was formed in 1986, and the particular characteristics of a long struggle which has taken place in an overwhelmingly industrial country.

COSATU inherits the radical, and for many years illegal, tradition of forming non-racial trade unions. When apartheid was consolidated by the Nationalist government in 1949, legislation was passed which forced unions to represent only white workers, or only black workers. Unions which refused, such as the South African Congress of Trade Unions, were driven into exile. Together with the ANC and the South African Communist Party, they were forced to conduct their activities underground for many years.

As the mass struggle against apartheid swelled again in the late 1970s and early 1980s, unions among Black workers were reorganized. In 1986, most of them were consolidated in the formation of COSATU. For the first time, Black workers had the power to shut down the country's mining industry, the heart of the economy. COSATU called a series of national general strikes, called "stay-at-homes" because even the word "strike" was outlawed. These helped to destabilize the apartheid government, forced it to unban the ANC, and eventually led to the current negotiations and elections.

When Black unions came together to form COSATU, their movement was already larger than any union federation in the country's history. "We fought for the rights of workers on the factory floor," Naidoo remembered. "But we simultaneously made sure that the struggle for political freedom was also on our agenda. That is why we are strong now."

The ANC and COSATU have written a common program for the reconstruction and development of South Africa. "We support the ANC," Naidoo says, "because it has the track record and the support of the people, to be able to deliver a better life."

Although the ANC and COSATU are allies, their positions on economic development are not identical. The ANC's Freedom Charter, adopted in the 1950s, declared its commitment to nationalization of enterprises in the interest of the Black majority. In the last few years, however, as actual power has come within sight, the ANC has been under enormous pressure to give up that commitment in order to attract foreign investment. In mid-January, the ANC announced that, should it win the election, it would embark on a massive campaign to create housing and jobs for South Africa's black majority. I would do so, however, in the context of a mixed economy in which nationalization, it said, would be an option, but might not be used on a widespread scale.

"As COSATU, our official position is to fight for socialism," according to Muzi Buthelezi, deputy secretary of the Chemical Workers Industrial Union. "In practice, however, we will consider nationalizing key industries only if it will benefit workers. For instance, the pharmaceutical industry might be nationalized to increase healthcare access, or the cement industry in order to speed the building of housing. We don't follow any particular model. We simply want a socio-economic system sensitive to the needs of the people."

When some figures within the ANC proposed to give up a special code of conduct for foreign corporations seeking to invest in South Africa, voices in COSATU were raised in criticism. Similarly, when a proposed section for the new constitution defined property rights so that land could not be expropriated and redistributed to Black farmers, COSATU opposition forced its withdrawal.

COSATU's structure brings it very close to its 1.2 million members. All its officers work fulltime in the factory or workplace, something unheard-of in the U.S. labor movement. Its 30,000 shop stewards will conduct a voter education campaign for the ANC, along with people released from each union and from over 300 workplaces. "We have rank-and-file activists in every shop, factory and mine," Naidoo claimed proudly, "who are in daily contact with our constituency. Workers know us much better than the political parties."

The ANC will rely on COSATU's grassroots network to win the election. The ANC constituency bears the legacy of apartheid. Over 60 percent of COSATU members cannot read or write. Black people have not voted in an election in living memory. "It is our constituency that doesn't know how to vote," Naidoo says. "The whites know how to vote."

An even greater obstacle to an ANC victory is massive violence. Tens of thousands of people in South Africa have already been killed in terrorist attacks on commuters, and in the apartheid townships. COSATU and the ANC charge that as each step is taken in negotiations towards the end of the apartheid government, the attacks increase. Bangumzi Sifingo, COSATU's international relations officer, alleges that violence is intended to destabilize society, and to frighten the country's Black majority from participating in the election process. "Violence will increase in the runup to the election," he predicted.

"We don't want to become like Angola," Naidoo explained, "where the MPLA has won the election, but is unable to govern. Very powerful forces in South Africa are opposed to democracy, and are determined to use any means, including extremely violent means, to destabilize our democratic transition."

The task of educating voters amid violent intimidation seems daunting. But the ANC says change is "irreversible" in South Africa, and that violence and illiteracy are obstacles which can be overcome. "The point is," Naidoo concluded, "that we will reclaim our dignity and we will reclaim it now."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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