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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Press Statements


10 November 1997

How soon we forget!

Tomorrow, business will appear before the TRC (hopefully) to disclose fully their relationship with the apartheid regime, how they willfully supported apartheid laws such as the job reservation, pass laws, paid starvation wages, employed children in farms, used prison labour, refused to recognise black trade unions as well as deny them any other basic rights. In short, we expect them to confess to their terrible role in the violation of human and trade union rights. Can we trust business to fully and with humility disclose their role in defending apartheid? We doubt. Business is known to want the whole world to believe that it was not the heroic struggles of the struggling masses that brought about an end to apartheid, but the struggle for reform by capital. Our submission on Thursday 13 November 1997, will debunk this myth.

>From its inception, COSATU vowed to engage in struggles with other progressive organisations to bring about democracy in our country. A core feature of that heroic resistance was the tireless struggle by the working people for better working conditions as well as to challenge both employers and the state policies of apartheid. We were determined to wage a relentless struggle for the basic rights of workers to be regarded as human beings, both on the factory floor as well as in the land of their birth. Any attempt to divorce the link between the struggle for basic trade union rights on the factory floor from the broader struggle for human rights in society was not only undesirable but impossible in the South African context.

We remain of the view that apartheid with its form of institutionalised racism masked its real content and substance - the perpetuation of a super-exploitative cheap labour system. We all know that the primary victims of this system were the black working class and the primary beneficiaries the white ruling elite. To deny this reality today is a perversion of truth, reconciliation and justice.

The development of an industrial and mining economy required the forced conquest of the indigenous African people. The colonial period sowed many of the seeds of political oppression we saw entrenched in apartheid legislation later. The systematic denial of trade union rights to black workers in the earlier industrial years was designed to subjugate and entrench an inferior status on black workers. The enforcement of the migrant labour system destroyed the family fabric of millions of black families in Southern Africa. It was a gross human rights violation that will take us many generations to recover from.

The Industrial and Conciliation Act of 1924 entrenched the racial exclusivity of white workers acting in concert with the white bosses and a white ruling clique. Security legislation throughout the pre-democracy period was used to ensure the brutal suppression of the rights of black workers.

In the sixties South Africa recorded one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. Much of this came on the back of the brutal suppression of the rights of the majority, the Sharpeville shootings and the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960. This period saw the National Party government implementing a host of totalitarian measures, including repressive security legislation giving almost unlimited power to the security forces and resulting in the arrest, imprisonment and execution of many trade union activists.

The Bantustan system was implemented in earnest by both the state and employers. In cities, Africans were simply temporary workers. Labour laws were tightened further with the twin aims of controlling workers and channeling their labour to meet the needs of the bosses. Real wages declined for black workers.

The golden age of apartheid brought no fruits to the enslaved black workers and lead to the outbreak of the mass strikes of 1973. This was a spontaneous reaction to the super exploitation and poverty that black workers faced. The response was predictable. Co-operation between the police and the bosses in crushing strikes, often violently, was commonplace. Mass arrests and dismissals were the order of the day. There was no discernible action by the bosses to distance themselves from the naked brutality of the apartheid system.

The rejection of toothless liaison committees and the struggle for the right to genuine trade unions forced the apartheid state and employers to rethink their strategies. The apartheid state responded by appointing the Wiehahn Commission which sought to combine reforms with repression. It sought the co-option of the minority black urban workers through the granting of Section 10 rights. At the same time, it entrenched racial divisions amongst workers. Trade unions which had essentially white executives were allowed to register, while those that were dominated by a black militant, mainly migrant and hostel-based leadership could not register. Those independent trade unions that did register insisted on the principle of non-racialism and refused to exclude migrant workers. The fact that we today have non- racial and democratic trade unions is as a result of struggles by workers and not through the solidarity of the bosses.

At the same time, trade unions were targeted by the national security management system created by the generals and police chiefs which served to co-ordinate all the components of the "total strategy" to ensure the maintenance of apartheid rule. Input and representation on the secretive security structures extended beyond state security organs to include members of the business community such as Mayer Kahn of SAB, town councils and local industry.

In addition, the Stratcom wing of the security branch usually dealt with operations affecting trade unions. These operations included violent and non-violent methods. Operations ranged from disappearances and abductions to theft of trade union subscriptions to a major wave of arson and bombings of our offices. In was in this period that our headquarters, COSATU House, was destroyed in a bomb blast, a crime that the apartheid state now acknowledges it committed.

On 24 February 1988, the regime effectively banned 17 organisations as well as promulgated far-reaching restrictions against COSATU, in effect declaring our political activity illegal. While we were not ourselves banned, we were now denied the right to express our political views and vision. This clampdown on COSATU was never opposed by the business community. In fact in a meeting held with them in Broederstroom, they refused to condemn the state for its actions. These are the same people who today would want us to believe that they were opponents of apartheid.

The role of business during the period under review has been one in which they have co-operated with the apartheid state and taken measures to undermine and crush the trade unions. That fact that trade unions survived is due entirely to the strong organisation and commitment of thousands of workers, despite the suffering and sacrifices endured. These are the faceless mine workers, unknown women in the farms and domestic service, those workers who were killed in strikes and other political activities, the dismissed workers who were fighting for better rights and working conditions as well as those women who remained in the rural areas and refused to be broken by the migrant labour system.

White South African business has attitudes reminiscent of those expressed by German businessmen just after World War II. It would appear that none of them ever supported apartheid and its institutions, profited from it, or (worst of all) ever voted for the National Party. Listening to current accounts, it would seem that South African businessmen (for they are mainly white men) courageously and openly opposed the National Party and its obscene apartheid policies at every turn. Indeed business - just like the National party - has claimed for itself the mantle of the force which effectively brought apartheid to its knees!

There are ofcourse those few businessmen who have somehow escaped this rampant historical amnesia and still remember some of their past actions. They appear genuinely embarrassed both by the claim that business interests destroyed apartheid and by the enormous profits made from apartheid. This group now tends to claim that they had no alternative - they were simply obeying the law. Like millions of Germans who were "only following orders", their only crime, it seems, was cowardice.

The idea that the private sector's chief sin, if indeed there were any, was that it failed to "speak out against a system that was against economic logic" is spurious. Capitalism in South Africa was built and sustained precisely on the basis of the systematic racial oppression of the majority of our people. Indeed, historical records show that:

o far from being innocent of racial oppression, it was precisely the captains of industry, particularly those associated with the diamond and gold-mining industry, who pioneered many of the core features of what later came to be known as apartheid;

o far from spontaneously eroding racial oppression, profit-driven economic growth in South Africa coincided with the deepening oppression and dispossession of the majority;

o even in the final two decades of apartheid rule, in the midst of a deepening economic crisis, a sometimes wavering business community in South Africa generally collaborated heavily and benefited enormously from a close relationship with the minority regime.

The historical record does not support business claims of non-collaboration. A vast body of evidence points to a central role for business interests in the elaboration, adoption, implementation and modification of apartheid policies throughout its dismal history. Apartheid's labour laws, pass laws, forced removals and cheap labour system were all to the advantage of the business community.

For much of its history, apartheid was enormously profitable, and South African business fell over itself, not just to secure state contracts and subsidies, but to sustain the cheap labour policies which underlay such profitability. Viewed in simple monetary terms, there is absolutely no doubt that the major beneficiaries of 40 years of apartheid policy were business interests, including many of its self proclaimed liberal representatives.

While we acknowledge the fact that a few individual businessmen and companies did speak out against apartheid before it became fashionable to do so, hardly any of them declined to partake of the vast profits created by decades of cheap labour policies. With a few honourable exceptions, very few of them recognised the right of black workers to organise in trade unions until more than 30 years after the NP came to power. While they were willing to negotiate with white workers and to recognise their unions, black workers were persecuted for daring to organise themselves into trade unions, or to be seen to be questioning, let alone challenging, the decision of the "baas". Few declined to use punitive labour legislation against black workers. Almost none of them stood aside from the chase for state contracts and subsidies, particularly those associated with the armaments industry.

This is in the main due to the fact that over and above its specific policies, apartheid reflected a mind set, an almost philosophical consensus, a discourse of natural privilege, shared by the vast majority of white South Africans, including liberal business. These themes pre-dated apartheid and remain prevalent in the discourse of business, even in the new South Africa. This was a racialised mind set of self and other. It was a discourse which classified South Africans into sets of racial categories - seeing one as naturally superior and skilled and the other as inherently inferior and backward. The terms of this dualised discourse have changed over time. In the 1940s, it was depicted as the division between the so-called "civilised" and "primitive" sections of the population. Today it is characterised as the so-called "first world/third world" dichotomy in the population.

Despite the changes in terminology, two things have remained constant in this discourse. The first is that, at least since the adoption of the "civilised labour policy" in the 1920s, these are overwhelmingly racial and class categories. While a few educated and wealthy blacks have recently been granted admission to the "first world group", we all know that the so-called "third world population" refers to poor and dispossessed black South Africans. Indeed, much of the discussion about the possible growth path for the South African economy focuses on the obstacles to growth represented by the fact that this "third world population" unrealistically aspires to "first world" living standards. Seldom however, are we told that our "first world population" lives way beyond the means of what remains a relatively poor country.

The second is that whatever its current terms, this dichotomy has justified the privileges and power of one group and the dispossession and poverty of the other as somehow inherent and in the natural order of things. This has meant that these profound inequalities of power and privilege were never described as the result of human agency, of conscious political, economic and social policies adopted by the "first world population" which held a monopoly of power and privilege. Rather, such vast differences are seen as somehow natural to the human condition. It is for this reason that, even in the new South Africa, attempts by the black majority to change the existing distribution of wealth and income in their country somehow runs counter to nature. The myth continues that only those in the "first world population" know how to bring about social change.


COSATU's submission will shown that black workers, in particular, Africans and women, were victims of apartheid oppression and exploitation. The denial and violation of our rights as well as our exclusion from political and economic activity were not a natural phenomenon or disaster, but based on systematic planning and policy implementation by the regime and business.

We want to differentiate between two important issues:

o Business collusion with the apartheid regime, for example loans, and;

o Business violations of human and trade union rights of workers under apartheid, which include directly using apartheid legislation (pass laws, compounds, etc); and the use of the state machinery (victimising workers).

If we are to be serious about a future free of abuse and gross violation, then we must know all the abuses and all the perpetrators of the past so that we can define a future without abuse, oppression and exploitation. If business is only or primarily seen as abusive because of its link with the apartheid regime, we are likely to make the mistake of declaring that abuse is over (because the regime is over). Alternatively, we have to say that apartheid continues, in order to be able to explain why business continues committing such violations. In both cases the actual role and culpability of business pursuing its ordinary capitalist preoccupations will be obscured.

In order to say something about ordinary capitalist preoccupations, it has to be made very clear that the TRC mandate, definitions, and visions of the abuse of yesterday and the non-abuse of tomorrow systematically excludes all the "ordinary" crimes of business.

If the only meaningful reparation is a future without abuses, this hinges on how we define these abuses, as the following examples illustrate:

o If it is an abuse to pay starvation wages, then the reparation becomes a living wage.

o If it is an abuse to force millions into unemployment, then reparation becomes employment.

There are other forms of reparation:

o Adequate recognition of the perpetrators of past abuses, as a means to focus on those who might continue such abuses.

o Recognition of the role of millions of ordinary people, who in their collective actions made apartheid unworkable, forcing every single reform that was to emerge. This forms part of an alternative culture of human rights. We need to create a culture of human rights in which abuse of workers is seen as a fundamental abuse of human rights; and where criminality is seen to extend to each circumvention, side-stepping, ignoring or breaking of protective measures that are put into place. This is something that needs to become the responsibility of all sectors of the state, rather than an appeal to capital.

The capacity to abuse comes from unequal power and wealth. To get rid of these inequalities means challenging the basis of this inequality, which lies in the private ownership of capital. It is in this regard that we propose the following:

Closing of the apartheid wage gap

A major source of inequity in the society is the huge differentials in earnings between workers and management. These differentials are based on the apartheid wage gap which existed between white and black. The gap remains one based largely on colour.

Training of workers

International experience shows unambiguously the importance of a well-trained workforce to high growth economies. The development of a country's human resource is a sustainable advantage in the search for new markets. It offers real equity benefits to workers, through increased pay for increased skills. It leads to increased productivity. It provides skills to overcome the skills bottlenecks which previously choked off growth. Investment in training and retraining is a key means of addressing one of the structural problems in the economy - the low level of skills. It will lead, through increased effectiveness of workers, to sustainable job creation in industry.

Investment in previously neglected areas

During apartheid, most employers neglected to build factories as well as invest in the rural areas and in black areas. Those who did were only interested in the cheap labour system associated with the bantustan system. The commission should ensure that all of those who were investors in the so-called black spots, who left as soon as labour laws became applicable, should either return or be forced to pay reparation damages to workers in these areas.

Abolition of the forced single sex hostel system

The recommendations of the Leon and the Myburgh Commissions on these issues will suffice.

Migrant labour

As in the abolition of the single sex hostel system above.

Workers Museum

The current political and social situation has been brought about by the relentless struggles of workers. We believe that those who are currently enjoying the fruits of our struggle and have been our oppressors should make a contribution towards a remembrance for workers. A Workers Museum encompassing the struggles for trade union rights in our country since industrialisation began would be a fitting gesture and remembrance to the fallen heroes and heroines - the workers of our land.

Return of all video footage from the police

During the apartheid era, a lot of video footage was taken by the security forces and, in isolated cases, by employers. It is our view that their usefulness, if ever there was any, has come to an end. Many people were arrested, detained or killed after various union activities. We call on the TRC to request the return of all materials that were taken by the police from our various offices as well as materials such as photos and videos which were taken by them without our consent.

Capital flight

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, there was massive capital flight from South Africa. Much of this capital flight was illegal and was disguised by the over invoicing of imports and the under invoicing of exports. We propose that the TRC considers granting amnesty to those business people who come forward to acknowledge this unpatriotic deed on condition they disclose fully what they did and how they did it as well as reinvest such funds in the development of the disadvantaged communities.


COSATU strongly believes that big business in our country directly benefitted from the decades of apartheid enslavement of the majority. It would be nice that all of us were freedom fighters as is so often portrayed by those who have been the direct beneficiaries of apartheid. In fact, too often we hear the view that "I did not know what atrocities were committed in my name to maintain my priveleges". Common decency would require the humility of saying "I was wrong and I commit myself to helping make our new South Africa a better place to live for all". As raised elsewhere in the submission, we will judge South African employers on the basis of full disclosure and how they behave in the future on issues such as basic trade union rights, the closing of the apartheid wage gap and allocating sufficient resources for the training of workers, especially African and women workers. As workers we are ready to forgive them. Our only condition is full disclosure and real commitment to the future.

The majority of South Africans require no more and no less.

Nowetu Mpati COSATU Head of Communications

Tel: + 27 + 11 + 339-4911 Fax: + 27 + 11 + 339-2281 E-mail: nowetu@cosatu.org.za