Reclaiming Our Unions: The Crisis in SAMWU and the Continuing Fight for Democracy from Below | Amandla! Correspondent

by Oct 15, 2014Magazine

As this issue of Amandla! goes to press, we read disturbing accounts of South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) shop stewards being prevented by private security personnel from entering the union’s Johannesburg headquarters, and being physically attacked with pepper spray and even live ammunition. These latest events can only reinforce the sense that a much deeper, systemic crisis is working its way through the country’s trade union movement.

The crisis that has erupted within SAMWU over the past several months appears to have originated at the union’s 10th National Congress in Mangaung in August 2012, which saw the election of new national office bearers. Given the fracturing of the tri-partite alliance that was also unleashed at Mangaung and the resulting ramping up of the struggle over the control and direction of COSATU, SAMWU members may have been distracted from affairs at home, failing to pay sufficient attention to a creeping loss of accountability within SAMWU itself.

As one of the COSATU affiliates most critical of ANC policy, the seriousness of SAMWU members’ discontent became clear in April 2014 when the union issued a statement sharply qualifying their support for the ANC in the May elections. While reservedly endorsing the ANC’s electoral bid, the union called for an end to e-tolls, banning of labour brokers, abolition of the so-called “youth wage subsidy”, and implementation of the Freedom Charter. The SAMWU leadership had placed the union in the NUMSA-led alliance calling for a COSATU special national congress.

Discontent evidently ran deeper than concerns around COSATU’s alliance with the ANC. A meeting in late July to discuss possible strike action against the City of Cape Town erupted when members dissatisfied with union leaders’ responses regarding alleged financial improprieties were expelled from the meeting for asking questions. Preliminary inspection of financial records revealed discrepancies of tens of millions of rands that could not be explained, and indicated serious irregularities in a number of transactions. Allegations were made that as much as R136 million have gone missing.

At a special meeting in late July, leaders refused calls by a substantial majority of members for a forensic audit and the suspension of the leadership until it had been completed. A group of those challenging the leadership – who have subsequently organised themselves under the banner, “Save Our SAMWU” (SOS) – alleges that instead of heeding this call from members, the leadership began suspending, dismissing and expelling those who had asked questions and called for action to minimise losses and ensure accountability.

SOS claims to represent 72% of the union’s membership, and to have won votes at every general meeting in recent months – more than 100 in all – calling for leadership accountability, most frequently in the form of a forensic audit of the union’s finances and suspension of the leadership while such an audit is carried out. The group vigorously denies allegations that they have pursued the formation of an alternative municipal workers union, insisting they remain loyal to SAMWU’s rank-and-file and will fight to keep the union in the hands of its members.

The crisis in SAMWU – just the latest of several major corruption scandals in recent years involving some of South Africa’s largest and most influential unions – must also be understood within the broader crisis in COSATU, and the broader political shifts and realignments, with NUMSA’s call for a “movement for socialism” occupying the focal point.

NUMSA’s international symposium in August welcomed delegations from almost 20 countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, Greece, Nigeria, Philippines, South Korea and Uruguay. The murder of three NUMSA shop stewards only days before the symposium under circumstances that remain unclear drove home the seriousness and the stakes of the event and the political rupture it represents.

Accusations of corruption are relatively widespread throughout South Africa’s union movement and across political alignments. The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) has also been rocked by division and accusations of corruption. Its president, Thobile Ntola, was expelled on allegations of accepting kickbacks from service providers. However, people who defend Ntola accuse the SADTU leadership of themselves being involved in extensive corrupt dealings, including kickbacks and “promotions for cash”.

Similarly, national office bearers of chemical workers’ union CEPPWAWU are accused of failing to convene a constitutionally required meeting of the union’s national executive council (NEC) for several years, putting the union out of compliance with the department of labour, and of failing to respond to allegations of internal corruption.

Similarly, allegations of self-enrichment by office holders of police union POPCRU remain unresolved several years after first emerging. The chief executive of Popcru’s investment arm, Zwilenkosi Mdletshe was alleged to have given himself a R1-million housing loan after being turned down for a loan by the board of directors. The union’s president, Zizamele Cebekhulu and its treasurer, Themba Matsane were alleged to have misused for personal gain hundreds of thousands of rands from a fund intended to provide educational support to needy members. An additional amount of R18,5m is said to have disappeared in a murky deal involving the planned importation of cement from China.

In another case, leaders of SA’s Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (SATAWU) were arrested in February 2013 on charges relating to the alleged theft of R8.2m from the Railways and Harbour Workers Union Trust and purchase of luxury vehicles and houses. Subsequent to their arrest, allegations emerged of an additional R10m missing. Nevertheless, they were released and remain out on bail, continuing to occupy positions of authority within the union.

In all three cases, efforts by COSATU to intervene towards resolving the crises were rebuffed by union leadership charged with protecting the interests of workers. Perhaps tellingly, these three unions are among those that have been most hostile to COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi as the tensions and splits within the federation became more acute. These three unions are also staunch ANC unions, deeply wedded to the ruling party.

Allegations of misconduct against COSATU general secretary Vavi have taken a significant toll within the union movement, and are widely recognised to have seriously damaged his own effectiveness in addressing both scandals within individual unions, as well as disputes between various members of the federation. The allegations against Vavi of sexual impropriety and the need to rally behind him in the name of class solidarity have left some women trade unionists privately expressing frustration that their disciplined silence while Vavi was under attack has generally gone unacknowledged by men within the movement.

SAMWU itself has been at the forefront of Vavi’s defenders within the federation. This latest scandal over its own governance and finances has been extremely damaging to that effort. While there is no conclusive evidence that these scandals are the result of any coordinated effort to undermine South Africa’s strong trade union movement, allegations of infiltration by interests aligned to state security have emerged.

According to sources who have followed South Africa’s union movement very closely in recent decades, these scandals tend to follow a predictable pattern. Unsurprisingly, they tend to originate in the emergence of questions about leadership, frequently arising out of the discovery of indications of financial impropriety or out of serious failures of democratic process or statutory oversight.

Such questioning is initially countered with reactionary gossip against those asking questions, frequently involving accusations of hidden agendas, divided loyalties, and so on. When this tactic fails to quash the rumblings of discontent, the leadership begins to resort to suspension, dismissal and expulsion of those members who continue to press the challenge.

This is soon followed by a “reign of terror” waged internally to prevent remaining members from having any contact with those members who have been pushed out. Further threats of suspension, dismissal or expulsion follow if they so much as speak to the “renegade” members who have been raising questions. The damage a corrupt leadership is able to do in the meantime hinges significantly on the physical control of access to premises, documents and bank accounts.

These various cases underscore the degree to which many of South Africa’s trade unions have degenerated. The speed with which one of South Africa’s most respected and most militant unions has reached a point of such serious crisis should point to the need for a far-reaching struggle to entrench workers’ control and democracy in the progressive trade union movement.

A major debate is needed on the problems of bureaucratisation and “business unionism”. Perhaps it is time for members to conduct leadership audits to ensure accountability. Even more importantly, it is time to root out the culture of entitlement and material privileges. Without this, there is very little prospect for a genuine mass united front and a real movement for socialism.

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