The Hamsters Flex their Mighty Biceps.

Hamsters superficially seem innocuous little furry things, but they can be deuced vicious. Stick your finger into their cage and you will be surprised how they savage you. Then they will expect you to feed them so that they can whizz round in their little wheels, probably believing that if they ever stop doing this, the world will cease to turn and the cosmos will have no meaning.

The Creator was reminded of this when listening to a radio report about how a local trade union was announcing that it would no longer tolerate the high price of foodstuffs in South Africa, how it would demand that something be done about this, and about the electricity crisis and its possible impact on jobs, and indeed about everything else which was upsetting it.

On the face of it, this is a sensible stand. Oppose high food prices, indeed. Denounce the electricity crisis. Quite. Nobody can seriously deny that these are good things. But, um, how is a trade union to manage these rather difficult things? We have already seen that the electricity crisis, for instance, is a lot more complicated than just a government plot to privatise ESCOM.

The source of high food prices is not simple. It relates, in the very short term, to the high price of oil. This makes petrol expensive, which makes the transport of food and the materials which go to produce food (such as fertilizers and feedstock) expensive. Things are not quite so dire as they might be, because we have the apartheid-era SASOL and MOSSGAS oil-from-coal/gas plants, which were denounced as dinosaurs when they were built.

But a huge problem is that our transport system is now geared towards road transport. This is energy-unproductive as compared with rail transport, but it is not something which can be easily reversed; the rail network has been systematically undermined for decades, so there is no magic wand which can be waved which will save us from being dependent on imported oil.

An even greater problem is the dismantling of our agricultural protectionist system based on tariffs, subsidies and a network of “control boards”. Again, this has been done over the past few decades, but it went into high gear under the ANC. This was partly done under pressure from the West, via the World Trade Organisation, and partly from South African big business and corporate-friendly politicians, and it was done crudely and thoughtlessly and we now live with the consequences. We cannot, under present conditions, easily subsidise food, nor can we easily persuade farmers to return to the land or to grow commodities which are needed here instead of commodities which are potentially profitable.

Note this does not mean it cannot be done. South Africa could withdraw from the WTO and evolve protectionist policies around its food. (It would have to do the same thing with all its other products, of course, since it would probably face sanctions for doing so.) This might be a good idea, but it would probably be extremely dangerous, as it would probably also lead to financial problems as portfolio investors withdrew their money. So we would have to change the financial system, which would lead to more trouble. In other words, it is not simple. It is possible to plan for improvement, but it is not just a case of demanding that someone do something.

There is no sign that any unionist (or anybody else) has undertaken any such plan. Indeed, there is no sign that COSATU or any other trade union federation has the capacity to undertake such plans. NALEDI, COSATU’s economic think-tank, is largely moribund since the right-wing males who dominate COSATU chased the firebrand Neva Seidman-Makgetla out of the organisation. (Ironically, she is now Thabo Mbeki’s economic guru.) Of course it is difficult to get anything done when you don’t know what to do in the first place.

The trade unions which fall under COSATU do have some influence in the administration of the country. COSATU is part of the Tripartitite Alliance with the ANC. The ANC is the party of government. Thus, in theory, if COSATU asks the government to do something, it has a better chance of being heard than if, say, Solidarity asks for the same thing.

However, there is a problem. COSATU backed the new leadership of the ANC who overthrew the old leadership at Polokwane. The old leadership of the ANC are still in government, and will be until the next election. They are, understandably, resentful of COSATU for the way in which it fought a dirty and dishonest campaign in order to install a crook at the helm of the ANC, and they represent a substantial fraction of the party’s membership (and, very possibly, a larger fraction of the party’s voters). Therefore, they are extremely unlikely to listen to COSATU or any trade union connected with it. They have nothing to gain by doing so; it has been made humiliatingly clear to them that their political careers are over.

Of course, COSATU could demand that the current leadership of the ANC simply kick the old leadership of the ANC out of the party and thus install its new leaders in power in the government. The trouble is that the conflict in the run-up to Polokwane was bitter and extremely destructive of the party’s prestige. However, it was nothing compared to the conflict which would be generated by setting up kangaroo courts to purge the ANC of Thabo Mbeki’s supporters before the next national election. That would conceivably split the party, and would certainly promote an atmosphere of paranoid suspicion even worse than the current one, which would undoubtedly damage the party’s capacity to run an election campaign. In short, the ANC is not going to do that because it would not be in the ANC’s interest, nor would it necessarily be in the interest of the different camps within the ANC.

COSATU has complained for many years that it has far less influence over the government than it deserves. Ironically, COSATU’s attempt to change that situation by installing a different leadership in the ANC, has led to a situation in which COSATU has no influence over the government whatsoever.

But this, surely, is only a temporary situation. The new leadership of the ANC will be taking power in the country within a year or so. Meanwhile, surely, the trade union movement can work with the new leadership to develop ways of improving conditions for workers, especially, of course, unionised ones. (Of course, the trade union movement would have to make a start on this by developing such ways itself and raising them with the new leadership of the ANC; it seems odd that, predominantly, they are not doing this.)

There is, however, a problem with this. The new leadership of the ANC are not in any meaningful way responsible to COSATU. They are, no doubt, grateful to COSATU for the support which they gave in the massive smear campaign against Thabo Mbeki’s leadership which they have been running in recent years, and for the uncritical voting bloc which COSATU members represented in the provincial conferences and at Polokwane last year. Gratitude, plus a few rand, will buy you a cup of coffee in a cheap restaurant. Elsewhere it gets you less than that.

The people around Jacob Zuma are, for the most part, businesspeople. Some of them are also Communists, and many of these are people with trade union backgrounds, but this again does not mean that they are unionists. One conspicuous point about South African trade unionists is their willingness to let down the workers as soon as they are no longer beholden to them. (This is, of course, true of trade unionists all around the world; perhaps it is just a little more evident in South Africa.) Zuma’s chief agenda at the moment is to persuade other businesspeople that he does not represent a threat to their interests, and he has been doing this energetically.

Among the important things which Zuma has been saying to the businesspeople is that South Africa needs more “labour market flexibility”. This is a corporate euphemism for making it easier to fire workers, so that employers can weaken the bargaining position of trade unions and indeed make membership of a trade union less valuable for a worker, thus in the long run promoting bigger profits for the employers. This was something which was mentioned by Labour Minister Madlalana a few years ago, and he was vigorously shot down not merely by the unions, but by the leadership of the ANC under Mbeki; no more was heard of the concept at the time. So Zuma is proposing something which is definitely not simply anodyne rubbish about “business as usual”; he is proposing a change as radical as his other proposal to change the South African Constitution to make judicial murder legal again.

The unions, of course, shrieked. Significantly, Zuma did not reverse course, although he did not repeat what he had said. It may be that Zuma is as stupid as he is sometimes painted, and was simply saying whatever came into his head, in the way that Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s Secretary-General, does. (Mantashe is so dense that he has to wear snowshoes all the time to stop himself sinking to the centre of the planet.) But the Creator does not believe this. Instead, it seems probable that Zuma is just as pro-business as the corporate clique around him would suggest.

A possible straw in the wind — or windbag — happened at the celebrations of Chris Hani’s death. Hani was the last black member of the Communist Party to command any serious public support anywhere, and so on the anniversary of his murder, windbags and frauds everywhere combine to pillage his memory for usable rubbish. (There’s a splendid example of this in a recent Jonathan Shapiro cartoon, where Shapiro uses Hani — no squashy liberal — as a ventriloquist’s dummy for his own right-wing gibberish.) At the official ceremony, the COSATU fat-cat Zwelenzima Vavi and the SACP fat-cat Blade Nzimande, both rich men with corporate connections, combined to abuse ANC fat-cat Tokyo Sexwale (whose struggle record, it might be recalled, actually eclipsed Vavi’s and Nzimande’s put together).

There’s no reason to stand up for Sexwale, who is a sleazy property tycoon (and naturally an SACP member as well), but the point is that the rift in this particular lute is specially ridiculous. All three are traitors to whatever we could claim to exist of Hani’s legacy. All three backed Zuma and the corporate gang for President. Now, it appears, there is a split developing between the people who are genuinely intimate with Zuma and those who are not so intimate. But it is also a split between those who have nothing to lose from the exposure of Zuma’s corporate connections — such as Sexwale, Ramaphosa, Thami Zulu and many others — and those who have something to lose, because their credibility rests on their fraudulent claim to support the working class, and Zuma’s neoliberalism could expose that fraudulence.

Trouble is, it’s too late. Polokwane has been and gone. Mantashe and Zuma’s deputy Kgalema Motlanthe (another SACP corporate fat-cat) are clearly leaning more to their high ANC positions, preparing for power, than to their SACP or trade union origins. Vavi and Nzimande and the rest of them have no leverage over Zuma, and thus all they can do is pettily abuse Zuma’s lieutenants, as they did with Mbeki’s lieutenants. The likely consequence is going to be even worse than it was with Mbeki — because Mbeki’s government was committed to the rights of trade unions and had a vaguely social-democratic tinge, whereas Zuma’s government is dedicated to big business and seems likely to be more neoliberal than anything else.

The hamsters squeak angrily. They run ever harder on their wheels. They charge violently at the bars of their cage and scuffle menacingly in their stale, excrement-caked bedding. What they want is to be noticed. It has not yet occurred to them that their feeding-time is long overdue, and that they have no way of getting out of the cage.


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