A Tale of Two Conferences

Contact: National Co-Chair, Bill Fletcher, Jr. (bfletcher4 [at] compuserve.com)

[NOTE: For further information, visit the Black Radical Congress web site at: http://www.blackradicalcongress.org]

Two weeks ago I attended a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was an unusual meeting. Several leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU, one of the fast growing unions in the USA) went to South Africa to meet with their counterparts in the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), and several other affiliates of the Congress of South African Trade Unions to discuss 21st century trade unionism. This gathering was remarkable because it differed, in its fundamentals, from so many international union gatherings.

Among other things, the US side was not creating mischief. Additionally, they went to South Africa to both learn as well as share experiences. There was not a presumption of certainty and omnipotence that has characterized so many of the interventions by US trade unionists.

At the same time that this exchange was taking place, downstairs, in the same hotel, there was another gathering, albeit of a different sort. A major international insurance company was hosting a conference. Luminaries from the financial world were in attendance. The gathering was largely white, in contrast to the trade union gathering which was largely Black. The attire also differed, with the predictably more formal business wear of those from the corporate Mt. Olympus compared with the trade unionists.

Yet, what was interesting was not the reality of this contrast, but a speculative question raised by one of the US trade unionists and discussed with the South Africans: if South African President Thabo Mbeki had happened to come to this hotel, which conference would he have attended and what would he have said?

Though such a speculative question might seem peculiar, it speaks volumes about the situation within South Africa today. The situation that has unfolded since the 1994 democratic victory is extremely complicated and very contradictory. On the one hand, the end of apartheid is an historic victory, not only for the people of South Africa, but equally for the people of the world. Efforts have been made to introduce improvements in the living standards and situations of the mass of the African population.

Nevertheless, an economic direction was put into place in the mid ‘90s and fully endorsed by President Mbeki today, which moves South Africa on a path that can, at best, be described as national capitalism. In fact, the Mbeki government has backed major tenets of neo-liberal economics. The South African economy, for instance, has been opened up to world trade with few protections for domestic industry. This has brought havoc on entire sectors. The textile and garment industry, for instance, has been devastated with thousands of jobs lost forever. Several South Africa trade unionists have pointed out to me that the Mozambican textile industry is growing precisely because South African employers are running there to get cheaper labor!

The tensions created by this economic direction within the Alliance (the African National Congress, Congress of South African Trade Unions, and South African Communist Party) are clearly visible. COSATU, the largest of the trade union federations, has been outspoken in opposing the government’s economic policies, and most recently, new governmental efforts to encourage privatization. These tensions are made even graver by the fact that it is often former comrades in the struggle who are conducting blatantly anti-worker policies.

In order to make this picture more real, I would ask one to think about Atlanta, Georgia. In fact, I have said to friends in South Africa and the USA that it feels as if there is an Atlanta-ization of South Africa underway. What do I mean by that? Post-Civil Rights Atlanta witnessed the rise of a Black middle class that captured the political arena. There has been the growth of Black entrepreneurialism and the visible signs of enrichment. Yet, there has been no change in corporate control in Atlanta. The major power brokers remain white. And, at the base, the Black working class remains oppressed.

But the oppression is now not clearly cut on racial lines. Thus, Black mayors can take anti-union positions and actions and Black workers are asked to be silent because their oppressors are now Black. Or, as the Service Employees International Union discovered in the late 1980s when they attempted to organize the largely Black janitorial workforce, they could be opposed by anti-union/anti-worker consultants and politicians who wrapped themselves in the red, black and green of African-American liberation but whose sole interest was protecting themselves and the corporate interests they shielded.

So, to return to the beginning, that there could even be a question as to which conference President Mbeki attended suggests that there is a growing parting of the ways taking place in South Africa. While President Mbeki would certainly speak to his former comrades from the trade unions, his interests seem to lie more in what is represented by the other conference. Behind the veil of Black economic empowerment and building a South African economy in the era of globalization, there is a direction that has taken hold which appears, at least to an outsider, to be antithetical to the objectives that the anti-apartheid movement once advanced. Nevertheless, these are directions that now have the force of the presidency.

Copyright © 2001 Bill Fletcher, Jr. All Rights