by Stef Terblance

Labour politics – a storm is brewing

Unions may force government into a showdown

Angie Motshekga.jpg

As South Africa braces itself for its annual 'strike season' with the onset of wage negotiations both in the private and public sectors, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and one of its teacher unions have set a militant tone. Their  ultimatum to President Jacob Zuma to fire his education minister could lead to a showdown with government.

A number of recent developments involving Cosatu – which is in alliance with the African National Congress  – have tested the limits of this relationship with Cosatu’s frequently prescriptive attitude towards government and trying to force government’s hand.

Cosatu and its affiliates have, in recent times, been actively advancing a political agenda under the guise of labour issues. This has highlighted the deep ideological divide, at times seemingly paralysing the cabinet and threatening unity in the governing alliance.

While Cosatu is politically divided between pro- and anti-Zuma factions, most recently Cosatu’s and the South African Democratic Teachers Union’s (Sadtu) demands that Zuma should fire Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and her director-general Bobby Soobrayan, have brought about a rare display of unity within the labour movement.

It nonetheless was another labour campaign with strong political overtones. The real target is Soobrayan, whom the unions do not trust with the handling of textbook tenders in light of the imminent centralisation of schoolbook procurement.

Sadtu handed a long list of grievances and demands to the basic education department as part of a long-standing political battle with the department. Apart from a pay issue affecting exam markers, no real labour issues are involved.

While most people will probably agree that education is in a mess and that neither Motshekga nor Soobrayan are doing a good job, it is hardly a labour union’s job to tell the president who he may appoint to his cabinet.

Sadtu has, over the last few years, fallen into an almost annual strike routine with little regard for the interests of learners. Soobrayan and Motshekga have come out strongly against these strikes and the organisers, which is perhaps another reason why Sadtu wants them out.

With the classroom go-slow action of recent weeks by Sadtu teachers, their one-day strike and countrywide marches last week and their 21-day ultimatum to Zuma, all endorsed by Cosatu, labour has thrown down the gauntlet to Zuma and government.

Zuma did not take action against Motshekga over the earlier Limpopo textbook saga, which probably deserved strong action. He is even less likely to do so now and cannot afford to be seen dancing to a union’s tune. Motshekga is a Zuma ally, and is backed by the strongly pro-Zuma ANC Women’s League.

It could lead to a showdown, with teachers going on strike just as matriculants write their important mid-year exams and start preparing for their final exams. Zuma can hardly be expected to tolerate such a situation, but any action taken could have far-reaching consequences for the alliance.

But whether a strike will be successful remains to be seen. According to estimates, only about 5 000 of an anticipated 25 000 teachers participated in last week’s one-day strike.

Meanwhile, not even Zuma’s allies among labour leaders, a number of whom, led by Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini, were co-opted onto the Zuma-dominated national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC in December to isolate Zuma’s labour opponents, have come to his rescue.

Instead Dlamini has defended their presence on the ANC’s NEC according to a report ( ) in Business Day, saying this has allowed them to influence the ruling party from within. Dlamini and other Cosatu leaders across the political divide in the federation all endorsed Sadtu’s campaign.

Whether “influencing from within” or through mass power on the streets and in the workplaces, Cosatu has certainly forced government’s hand, or tried to do so, on a number of recent occasions. Some of these battles are ongoing and besides the campaign against Motshekga and Soobrayan, include:

  • Strikes, protest marches and an ongoing campaign against government’s decision to implement e-tolling on roads in Gauteng and extend it to other parts of the country;

  • Forcing government to hold back on the introduction of a youth wage subsidy to combat massive youth unemployment;

  • Opposing government’s National Development Plan (NDP) which, with Cosatu unions deeply divided over it, has now also become the political and ideological battleground for different factions in the broader alliance;

  • Opposing government’s decision to regulate labour brokers instead of banning them as Cosatu had demanded; and

  • Opposing government’s controversial Protection of Information (Secrecy) Bill which has just been passed by Parliament.


There are also other issues, mainly in the economic policy sphere, over which Cosatu frequently clashes with government, such as inflation targeting and changes to exchange rate policy.

From the moment President Zuma first announced plans for a youth wage subsidy, Cosatu turned on the pressure for it to be shelved. Government has been backtracking ever since.

Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, who is aligned to the socialist bloc in the alliance and Cosatu, from where he came into the cabinet, two weeks ago published a Social Accord on Youth Employment which his department and “social partners” put together.

It does not even mention the youth wage subsidy and is completely at odds with the NDP, which proposes "active labour market policies" including interventions such as the youth wage subsidy.

Meanwhile a strike by bus drivers of the Cosatu-affiliated South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) and the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) has brought buses and the Gautrain to a halt, preventing commuters and school children from getting to work and school.

Wage negotiations in the mining sector, starting next month, also promise to be the toughest in many years, with a high potential of disrupting this key sector which forms an integral part of government’s NDP plans.

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