In December, The Dawn News spoke to Phakamile Hlubi of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa about their struggle against the neoliberal government in South Africa, worker’s power and their vision of Pan African socialism.
-What is your name and the organization you are part of?
My name is Phakamile Hlubi I am the spokesperson for NUMSA. NUMSA is the biggest metal workers union in South Africa and one of the biggest in Africa. We represent over 350,000 metal workers, we are a trade union that was born from the metal working industry but we have since 2013 expanded our scope, we now represent workers along the value chain of metal working. Its moved from the automotive industry to transportation to mining, and we are now even organizing the energy sector. So for example the power utility ESKOM has NUMSA members, NERSA -National Energy Regulator of South Africa- has NUMSA members. But the bottomline is that our primary work or the workers we represent mostly are in the metal industry, the automotive industry, and along that value chain.
-What is NUMSA’s position towards the current government and political context in South Africa?
I’ll answer your question first and then I’ll give some context…Our view of the current South African government is we have taken a very oppositionist perspective, we are opposed to the ANC -African National Congress, ruling party in South Africa- led government, up until 2013 NUMSA was an active member and an alliance partner and supporter of the ANC. This was because in the days of the liberation movement when we were still fighting the apartheid regime, all of the various formations, the trade unions, the NGOs and the popular community struggles which were all fighting against apartheid all came together in an alliance. So if you were an ANC member you were automatically a supporter of all of the trade union federations, of COSATU -Congress of South African Trade Unions- for example. You were automatically a supporter of the UDF -United Democratic Front-. So that was the history, was that the alliance which was formed during the times of apartheid which was made up of the ANC, COSATU, SACP -South African Communist Party- , and other organizations were all part of one umbrella organization supporting each other in alliance.
Even in 1994 when South Africa transitioned from apartheid to a democratic or a so-called democratic state, that alliance continued. The ANC government was in power but it was in power. because of this alliance that it had and because of this relationship it had with the South African Communist Party and other trade unions. NUMSA was part of COSATU at that time, and of course we were then automatically part of the alliance, and we did endorse the ANC government.
However, we were opposed even though we were supporting them, politically we did not necessarily agree with the economic strategy that they were pursuing. From the early 90s, we began to vociferously oppose the fact that the ANC had made a decision to promote neoliberal capital in its macroeconomic policies. We had within the alliance expressed an extreme opposition because we felt that these economic policies in the long term would have a hugely detrimental impact on the working class in South Africa because they ultimately increased poverty and they would not attend to the problem of inequality which we inherited as a result of the apartheid system.
Apartheid in South Africa in many ways remains even today. We say that because even though it is illegal for anybody to be racist towards you, in practice our economy is racist. Our economy still is structured in terms of the way it was during the days of apartheid, very little has changed. After the black government took over, even now 23 years later, the means of production, the ownership structure of most corporations, especially multinationals and big companies, they are all dominated by white capitalists and white capitalist companies. You have a situation where the richest people in South Africa continue to be white people, just like it was under apartheid, white people continue to live the best lives just like they did under apartheid. That’s when you realize that the battle has to be much more than just about race. If you are not dealing with the fundamentals and the fundamental structure of the economy then you’re never going to change that kind of racial imbalance that we have inherited from the apartheid and colonial systems that we had in this country.
Our government did not fundamentally transform, so they did not demand land, they did not nationalize the land, they did not nationalize the minerals, they did not offer free and compulsory education and health care and all of those things. They have pretty much followed and adhered to the demands of the World Bank and ratings agencies in terms of how our economy is structured. Its allowed the dominance of white capital to continue as if apartheid did not end. Even in that time we have had, for example, the implementation of labor brokering, which has had a really negative impact on workers in South Africa, especially our members, many are finding themselves in precarious work, because of what labor brokering does. Our government now is tolling the freeways, in a system called E-tolls that commercializes the use of the roads.
It was those decisions, and ultimately Marikana, the massacre of the mine workers in August of 2012 was actually the catalyst for the decision that NUMSA made in the following year in 2013 to break away from the alliance because it then became patently clear that the government was actually an enemy.
It was not a government of the working class, it was not a government that was interested in social justice for the majority of the working class, it was a government which had in essence become a security guard if I can say to protect white corporate and white capitalist interests. I think it’s very important, I have to say that when we talk about the racism and that aspect, we are sometimes accused of being racist but we are not being racist, we are just articulating the reality. In a country where the majority of the people are African, it just doesn’t make sense that the economy should be controlled by such a small percentage of people. That is ultimately what we are fighting against, thats why in 2013, in the Special National Congress of NUMSA their members made the decision that they would no longer support the ANC government in the alliance, they would no longer support President Jacob Zuma as president of the country especially because of the extreme levels of corruption that were emerging, and him spending millions on his own personal home, and we were now going to pursue an agenda for the working class and we were going to pursue the idea of the formation of a worker’s party, whose interests champion the interests of the working class.
When NUMSA made that decision, we were then expelled from COSATU, and when you are expelled from COSATU, there are a whole load of other things that happened as a result of that. So our view of the current political dispensation is that whilst they may sound like they care about the working class, and you will hear they use the right kind of language, because they do have that liberation history, and they do have a long association of working with working class formations, many members of the ANC are actually communists, or members of the South African Communist Party. However, in practice if you look at the economic policies that have been implemented, those policies are hurtful to the working class and the poor.
As we speak right now the ANC government is proposing legislation to undermine all of the hard work and the rights that we have fought for as workers in South Africa. During apartheid, African workers had no right to organize, they were not allowed to join a union, it was illegal to unionize, and you could be severely punished for being involved in those types of activities. Now what we are finding is that they are trying to change the legislation, but its a type of oppression that is very clever. They are not oppressing you with the gun, what they have said is that from next year May, if you want to go on strike, in the middle of your strike if your strike is a very long and lengthy strike, the state has the right to approach the labor court, and stop your strike, if its having “an extremely negative impact on the economy”.
They have also proposed that we as trade unionists must ballot, and hold elections among ourselves where we allow our members to vote and say whether they want to have a strike or not. Usually in trade union culture when members want to go on strike its very simple you have a mass meeting, workers on mass will agree with a show of hands, “Yes we all agree, we want to go on strike” or “No thats it we are done its over” but its a very sort of informal process but it is done very organically and its done in that style. Now they want us to have an election, where we must cast votes in a secret way to say yes we want to continue with the strike or no we don’t continue with the strike. By implementing a system like that you are actually in effect subverting the right to strike. The right to strike is now no longer an automatic right, it is now being hampered by bureaucracy. So they are using bureaucracy as a way to limit our right to strike.
How they have justified this is by Marikana, they blame the Marikana massacre on the workers, they believe that the violence that took place at that time was because the workers were violent. The workers were violent therefore the police had to come out and shoot 34 unarmed striking workers. After Marikana, there was a platinum strike of over 6 weeks, it was one of the longest strikes ever recorded in post-apartheid South Africa. It almost destroyed the platinum industry in South Africa because workers were inspired by what they had seen in Marikana and they were also horrified by the mass murder, so they refused to back down on the demand for 12,000 rand. The demand for that wage of 12,000 rand was the catalyst and what sparked the Marikana strike. So you found that all of these miners in and around the platinum belt all started demanding the same thing, which caused a massive strike that lasted a long time, which the state couldn’t break.
Its for that reason that they have now come up with these laws, which they designed to try and limit our rights so that they can actually intervene and stop the strike when they feel like we are having too much of an impact. As NUMSA that means we are even more an enemy of the state than we were before, because as far as we are concerned this bill is an infringement on our fundamental and basic right to strike. The bill at the moment is still a bill and there are public consultations taking place so as NUMSA we have participated in the consultation, where we have rejected it, but we are also planning to take the issue to the Constitutional Court. We believe that it is a constitutional violation, that what our government is trying to achieve is actually going to remove our most basic rights, a right we did not have during apartheid and now it seems in this post-apartheid government, that right is going to be taken away by the very same “progressive” black government, because they are only interested in protecting the interests of capital and big business.
-What is NUMSA’s perspective on how they see Pan African unity happening on the continent?
For us, solidarity whether its Pan African or international is critical. We were part of the liberation movement in the days of apartheid and it was international solidarity that played a major role in destroying the apartheid government. As Marxists and as Leninists we believe in international solidarity and we believe that we have a role to play on the continent.
That is why we have been actively supporting our Zambian comrades with the struggles that they are facing against the Lungu regime, particularly because as South Africans we were hosted by the Zambian government under apartheid and now that we see them, when we see them suffering we feel that it is our responsibility to highlight the crisis. In fact we were the first in South Africa to raise the alarm about what was going on in Zambia, because the Zambian government and the South African government are very cozy, they are very good friends. The mainstream media in South Africa is asleep when it comes to these issues. They are not very connected to what is going on in the continent, they are very focused on what is goes on in South Africa, they are very insular. When ordinary Zambians started complaining about rights abuses, a lot of people weren’t even hearing them and it was only really when NUMSA started to make a lot of noise on behalf of Zambian people that South Africans started to be aware of the oppression that was taking place through the Lungu government.
We are also creating relationships with other African countries and we are doing that through the Pan African Today. Earlier in the year we hosted the Pan African Socialist Conference in Tunisia, and even my presence here in Brazil as a representative of NUMSA is part of that process. We believe that it is very important that we must build these relationships because we can see the attack against the working class, ultimately we are all fighting the same battles. We are fighting former liberation governments who because of the fact that they believe that they freed us from colonialism they can do as they please. Anywhere on the continent you have your Mugabes of Zimbabwe for example, Mugabe felt he had the right to be a dictator for 30 years because he “liberated” the people of Zimbabwe from colonialists, and we are all suffering from that. When you look at what happens in that transition, what kind of government takes place after that so called liberation takes place, its oppression through a different form, its oppression through capitalism and pursuing a neoliberal agenda.
In South Africa, that oppression has resulted in an unemployment rate of 35% and growing, where poverty levels are at 55% and growing, 55% of the entire population is living below the poverty line. Where three white men own the entire wealth of the South African economy, so we realized that it is not enough for you to fight a battle against racism, ultimately the demon here is not racism its a system, a capitalist system which perpetuates inequality. So thats why its very important for us to speak about solidarity and creating a media platform where we can have and express our ideology as members of the working class because we know that it is the socialist ideology which is truly the solution to the world’s ills. We are hoping that the rest of the continent can also come to this realization, and this is the message that we are trying to spread all over the continent and all over the world as well.