Retiring the lies of liberation

RW Johnson reviews Johnny Copelyn's 'Maverick Insider. A Struggle for Union Independence in a Time of National Liberation'

Johnny Copelyn, Maverick Insider. A Struggle for Union Independence in a Time of National Liberation (Picador, 2016), xvii,353 pp.

The past is, as they say, another country and already the South Africa of the 1970s and 1980s seems unimaginably distant. Not many of the heroic certainties of that time have survived. Many African countries, a generation after independence, looked back sadly at the colonial period and said “It was better then”. This has not yet happened in South Africa and perhaps it never will, though one cannot but note how many of the emphatic promises of that period have turned out to be false.

Apartheid and capitalism were so interdependent that if you got rid of one, both would go. Wrong. Apartheid was the most unequal society imaginable. No, that is post-apartheid South Africa. Remember the ANC election slogan of 1994? “Jobs, jobs, jobs”. But unemployment has more than doubled under the ANC. Or the UDF indignantly denying that it was an ANC front? That is now quite casually admitted. One could go on and on. There was a great deal of lying, a great deal of pretending.

Johnny Copelyn's book is refreshing because it is quite the opposite. He tells it straight. Thus, for example, he writes of how concerned he was not to allow the trade union movement to fall into the hands of those who took their orders from people right outside that movement and how, when the young Jay Naidoo was sent to be vetted by him, he asked him if he owed allegiance to any political party. Jay looked him in the eye and lied, saying he had no such allegiance. It soon became clear that he had ANC/SACP loyalties.

No sooner was he elected Cosatu's general secretary than he flew to Lusaka to consult with the exiled ANC and shortly thereafter announced that Cosatu was part of an alliance led by the ANC. He had no mandate even to consult, let alone to make such a decision. Similarly, when Cosatu instructed Naidoo to oppose a counter-merger to ACTWUSA (Copelyn's textile workers) he simply flew to address the other side and encourage them towards their counter-merger. These were repeated violations of his supposed commitment to workers' democracy and one can only assume he was getting his orders from elsewhere. Yet today, sadder and a little wiser, Naidoo makes speeches regretting that Cosatu ever subordinated itself to a political movement.

Copelyn was one of the generation of young white radicals who joined the labour movement in the wake of the 1973 Durban strikes. He learnt an immense amount from this, though he was banned for his troubles. From an early stage he seemed to realise that he was quite normally on the politically incorrect side of things. A key sign of this was his mentorship by Rowley Arenstein, who had long been a dissident from the SACP and whose opposition to the armed struggle made him a pariah in “the movement”. But Rowley was an exceedingly sharp and experienced lawyer.

Copelyn recalls how when Yunis Shaik came to him, deeply distressed that his brother, Chippy, was being tortured in detention, Copelyn took him to Rowley who quickly saw a way to get Chippy off without having to betray anyone. Yunis, utterly thrilled, was unwise enough to tell Billy Nair, a hard-line SACP man, and all Billy could do was denounce Yunis for having had anything to do with a renegade like Rowley, quite oblivious of what that might mean for Chippy.

Copelyn had chosen to work with the textile workers and became the general secretary of their union. In those days a large part of the textile industry was located in Natal, so most of Copelyn's union years were spent in Durban. There is a great deal here about how the union was built and how it grew through a complex series of mergers. There are times when the reader is somewhat overwhelmed by all the trade union acronyms but he who sticks with it is rewarded.  The principal, multi-year struggle was to gain union recognition at the huge Frame Group of factories. This pitted Copelyn against the redoubtable Philip Frame. A hard man though one Copelyn came to appreciate. Ironically, both he and Frame were Jews of Lithuanian extraction, Copelyn being an anglicisation of Kaplan.

Copelyn grew close to his African shop stewards – there are many engaging portraits here – and in the ideological terms of the time he became a strong “workerist”, which is to say he took trade union democracy completely seriously, as against those who saw trade unions as merely subordinate elements under a hegemonic ANC. The implication of that was that the ANC might ordain strikes or stay-aways or school boycotts as part of a larger struggle, without any reference to whether this would be good for workers, commuters or pupils or whether, indeed, they had voted for such action.

Concern with such issues earned Copelyn a good deal of abuse as a reactionary syndicalist. In fact Copelyn was keenly aware of the use and abuse of the Afrikaner worker organisations such as the Mynwerkers Unie by the National Party and thus of the dangers that any form of nationalism poses to a trade union movement. It goes without saying, of course, that even to make such a comparison placed him beyond the pale. How could you possibly compare the Nats and the ANC? One was evil, the other represented Virtue. Such was the passionate naiveté of the time.

Finally, Copelyn had to step down from his union's leadership for personal reasons. This led to an ANC coup, eagerly greeted by Cosatu as a sign of his union's “transformation”. This quickly evolved into denunciations of Copelyn for being “anti-ANC” and “pro-Inkatha”. He had no option but to fight back, putting the choice over and over again to union audiences: would they prefer to make their own political choices or would they prefer the Charterist clique which had taken over, to make them for the workers?

Gradually he won the union back, though the price of this was an assassination attempt against him and the foundation of a breakaway union which, of course, soon fell by the wayside. As Copelyn was perfectly aware, this hostile takeover had been directed by the SACP in the persons of Billy Nair and Curnick Ndlovu, which lent a particular spice to Copelyn's later career as an MP sitting directly behind Nair – who, naturally, never referred to this previous struggle.

With textile worker jobs under pressure from imports, Copelyn took the bold step of taking ownership for the union of an about-to-be-closed textile factory at Zenzeleni in order to preserve jobs. By determined and shrewd management this succeeded in saving at least most of the jobs and even led to a second union-owned factory. Ironically, the most disastrous development was the election of an ANC government with a trade unionist (Alec Erwin) joining with Trevor Manuel in going far beyond what was required by the WTO in abolishing tariff protection on textiles.

The result, inevitably, was the loss of many thousands of jobs as cheap Chinese imports poured in. It was the same with the RDP, Cosatu's pet project. Who can forget how Erwin criss-crossed the country in great earnest, working through no less than six drafts of this policy? It was treated almost as Holy Writ. I remember suggesting that this would all prove futile and being sternly reprimanded for my lack of faith. In truth it was a naive and unbudgeted wish-list. It was swept aside by Mbeki in two years: so much for respecting the workers' views.

Copelyn writes well, with a gentle sense of humour, as if bemused by the myth-making and simple dishonesty which quite normally accompanied the Struggle. One object of his amusement is Pregs Govender, one of the ANC activists parachuted into the textile world. Copelyn wrily quotes from Govender's book, Love and Courage. A Story of Insubordination in which she claims that she won workers over from their initial hostility towards her union, GAWU, by “really listening” to them. To which Copelyn adds:

“Pregs has it that the sole difficulty was the ultimately inexplicably hostile attitude of these workers to her union. Somehow she conceals the fact that her union hid behind a closed shop agreement to deny these workers participation in the organisation of their choice. She makes no mention of its reneging on the undertakings given to these workers to accommodate them ahead of a proposed merger and, needless to say, there is no mention either in her rendition of GAWU's failed four day strike of 600 Indian workers from the factory trying to procure the dismissal of some 500 African workers from it!”

Naturally, Copelyn was regarded as a member of the awkward squad when he pointed out that the Freedom Charter was being imposed on the union movement without any grassroots consultation. He also noted the absence from the Charter of any of the worker rights precious to trade unions – and later demanded and got a separate Workers' Charter. In the end, of course, Copelyn desired the end of apartheid as much as anyone and could not stand aside forever from the strong currents flowing towards the Charterists.

Ultimately he knew he had to favour the building of a single united textile workers' union, SACTWU, even if this meant that a Charterist, Lionel October, would displace him as general secretary. Ironically, by the time this happened exciting prospects were opening up in politics and government, so before many months were past October resigned his post in favour of Copelyn to free himself for a career in this new and lucrative world.

To read this book is to relive a bygone age. Perhaps the peak moment was reached around 1990 when suddenly new orders and instructions as to strikes, demonstrations, stayaways etc would come from the Mass Democratic Movement, of which no one had heard before. The MDM was understood to include the UDF and ANC and thus got over the awkwardness of having to admit publicly that the movement had been lying all the time when it said the UDF had no connection to the ANC. But it was very peculiar: there had been no conference or founding ceremony for the MDM, it had no leader, no officers, no programme.

It was like the Cheshire Cat, suddenly appearing and then disappearing without trace. One would be told “There will be no lectures on Thursday, there's been a call for a stay-away”. If one asked who exactly had made this call one would just be told “the MDM”. If you pursued this further, it would be completely impossible to affix the name of any real person or organization to this “call”.

On one such occasion I was lecturing at Natal University and knew that if I cancelled my lectures, I would leave the country 24 hours later and the students would simply miss out, so I said “Very well, I'll ask the students to vote on what they want”. This was greeted with horror: how could I subject an instruction from the MDM to a vote? It didn't matter: the students were so intimidated that they all abstained in fright. Looking back, it seems certain that what was really happening was that the SACP was issuing these “calls”, telephoning them through to each campus and dressing themselves up as MDM. As so often, they were completely undemocratic but one was supposed to believe that they were part of a struggle for democracy.

Of course, the days are also long gone when bright young white idealists would go into the unions and Cosatu itself has shrivelled to a fragment of what it once was. It now consists almost entirely of white collar and public sector unions. The unions themselves are now largely stepping stones to political office and the spoils to be gained thereby. Perhaps worst of all, the unions were allied to a movement of armed struggle so violence was officially endorsed as a valid method. And, of course, it was a wondrous short cut.

Why bother persuading workers to strike if you can just threaten to kill them if they don't? And why bother to wait for a strike to squeeze the employer since it is so much quicker to threaten to smash up his factory or burn it down unless he closes it? Not all unions behave like this but there are many other rackets now current in the union movement – corruption, the sale of jobs, the buying of votes, the colonisation of the ministries supposed to supervise them - and so on. It is difficult to imagine any other future for Cosatu than further shrinkage, further degradation and further fragmentation.

Copelyn's career had an ironic twist. He became one of the twenty Cosatu candidates on the ANC's 1994 electoral list, so he became an ANC MP without ever joining the ANC. Taking stock of the new situation he realised that all hope of socialism had vanished just as thoroughly as it once had from the world of the kibbutz, but there was, on the other hand, a whole new era of opportunity opening up for black empowerment business. So he got SACTWU to set up an investment company, HCI, with R2m - which over the years he has turned into some R7.5bn, the profits being used primarily to provide scholarships, pensions and other benefits for SACTWU members.

Naturally, this new business career earned Copelyn a great deal more abuse and condemnation  - “capitalist sell-out” etc - but he has ridden over that just as easily as he did in his earlier period. What is truly striking is that the team with which he ran the union still surrounds him today, running HCI. Such constancy and loyalty over decades is unusual in any walk of life, let alone in the rough world of the unions. It is ironic that Copelyn's union career turned out to be a perfect training in business management (though it should be noted that few of the other trade union investment companies have prospered). But, as may be seen, stranger things than that happened in that bygone world.