Cyril takes his eye off the ball

William Saunderson-Meyer says what saved the President from total humiliation in Phokeng was the decline of COSATU


What was the president thinking? For a man who supposedly always has his eye on the long-term advantage, Cyril Ramaphosa clearly took his eye off the ball on this occasion.

The remarkable thing about his embarrassment at a Workers’ Day gathering is not that he was jeered and left without speaking. It is that he attended in the first place. Either he is becoming forgetful or he was criminally ill-advised.

The gathering was held at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium on the Rustenburg platinum belt. Platinum? Miners? Marikana? Does none of this ring any bells, Mr President?

Just a decade ago, at a mine owned by Lonmin — a company of which Ramaphosa was a director at the time — 34 miners were shot dead and 78 wounded by the police during a violent wildcat strike. The strike was conducted by the National Union of Mineworkers, the most powerful affiliate of the Congress of SA Trade Unions, which was the organiser of Sunday’s chilly welcome for the president. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The men were killed, as a trail of email messages afterwards showed, following pleas by Ramaphosa — who had led NUM during the most tumultuous years of apartheid — to the National Commission of Police, the Mineral Resources and Police ministers, and various state security entities, to act firmly against these “dastardly criminal” trade unionists. 

So it was about as politically maladroit as it gets for the Presidency to accept an invitation from Cosatu to speak to a fired-up gathering of miners in the 10th-anniversary year of a massacre in which the speaker was implicated. The optics, as the spin doctors would put it, are not good.

However, what has saved the president, from utter humiliation is the decline of the South African trade union movement, both in numbers and influence within the tripartite alliance. More than anything, the encounter highlights the wear-and-tear that Cosatu has taken since its heydays, a dozen years ago. 

The Bafokeng stadium seats about 45,000 people. For a high-octane rally of this nature, where the oppressed workers gather annually to celebrate their gains and promise to revenge their losses in the ceaseless battle with capitalism, to not only fill the stadium but to squeeze in another 10,000 would have been no problem at all, in the past.

But the footage of Sunday’s rally tells another story. The event started five hours late because union organisers were struggling to fill the stadium. In the end, the best they could manage was a desultory crowd, numbering only a few hundred people. 

The workers did not, as claimed in many media reports, “storm the podium”. Nor did they, as claimed by Daily Maverick, “howl [Ramaphosa] off the stage”. The reality was far less dramatic.

There were persistent but half-hearted boos, some uncoordinated heckling, and a lot of aimless drifting around the podium by workers who looked half pissed. This was certainly not the movement that once upon a time would have its opponents quaking in their gold-buckled Gucci loafers with blood-curdling threats of “rolling mass action”. 

A more Churchillian leader would have persisted with his speech and possibly prevailed. Cyril, as events in Ukraine have shown, is no jut-jawed Winston. Possibly wanting to pre-empt it all from deteriorating into a spectacle, the president decided that discretion was the better part of valour and called it quits.

Nevertheless, there are eerie echoes between this week’s event and Workers’ Day five years ago. Foreshadowing Zuma’s recall at the African National Congress’ leadership conference in December 2017, President Jacob Zuma was similarly prevented by Cosatu members from speaking, on that occasion at the Bloemfontein stadium. 

Cosatu had earlier in the year come out against Zuma over state capture. They wanted the president to resign and his then-deputy, Ramaphosa, to take over.

At the Bloemfontein rally, pro-Zuma and anti-Zuma factions had to be kept apart by marshals and the police, and restrained from thumping one another, until that event, too, was abandoned without any speeches being delivered. The same happened to other ANC leaders at rallies in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.

Ironically, in 2017 Ramaphosa had been despatched by Zuma to address an out-of-the-way Mpumalanga rally. The rain-sodden event passed off uneventfully, with only a few hundred workers turning out to listen to their soon-to-be president.

So, how much should Ramaphosa be worried about Sunday’s klap? No matter how enfeebled the trade union movement has become — in 2017 more than a third of workers belonged to unions; against a backdrop of 46% unemployment (by the expanded definition), it’s now down to 23% — repudiation by Cosatu will obviously hurt both politically and emotionally.

But who are the unions and the SA Communist Party, which both strongly opposed Zuma, going to support as an alternative to Ramaphosa? All his likely competitors at this December’s leadership conference are Zuma cronies and surrogates.

The Cosatu reaction to the event was that the workers’ actions were regrettable but understandable. Spokesperson Sizwe Pamla told the media that after Ramaphosa became president in 2018, he began to “betray” public sector workers by “pickpocketing” their agreed-upon salary increases.

Cosatu President Zingiswa Losi told the public broadcaster’s interviewer — who misspoke and incongruously referred to President Nelson Ramaphosa — that what had happened was possibly a “good thing” because it would cause the Cosatu leadership to assess what was wrong: “What has happened? How are we going to change?”

After previously issuing a 4,000 word May Day statement that uttered not a word against Ramaphosa’s administration, the best that the SA Communist Party could manage was a weak “we told you so” response. SACP spokesperson Alex Mashilo told the SABC that the organisation had warned that the government’s “bureaucratic approach” (presumably to the public service wage agreement) ignored “political ramifications” (presumably, angry workers).

Their responses are just political opportunism, and inept at that. The jeers at the rally were not about public service wage agreements or a despised president.

Sibanye-Stillwater — the world’s largest platinum producer which is surfing a commodities boom and, with spectacularly poor timing, has just given its CEO a R300m bonus — has had a bitter strike on its hands since February. The chanting at the rally was very specifically about the refusal of Sibanye-Stillwater to grant an across-the-board R1,000 per month increase, among other demands.

In response, Ramaphosa says several times: “You want your R1,000. I understand that. We’ve heard that message.” 

More worrying, he recklessly promised the crowd that the government would help ensure that they got what they wanted. How Ramaphosa intends to coerce a private sector company to abide by political instructions from his government will be interesting to see. Perhaps, as at Marikana, he’ll swiftly despatch some angry emails.

What should concern Ramaphosa and the ANC more than red faces in Rustenburg, is the announcement this week by the Economic Freedom Fighters that it intends to launch its own union movement. This EFF union, said leader Julius Malema, “would be bigger than Cosatu” and would never back down from conflict with employers. In an economy that is beset by increasing unemployment, such a union conceivably will find fertile ground.

Not only the ANC and its alliance partners should be worried. South Africa needs a militant workers' movement run by a political organisation that embraces violence like it needs another hole in the head.

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