Union federations that aren’t aligned to political interests appear to be growing stronger by the day in South Africa. The Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa)has just announced that the Public Service Association, which has 230 000 members, has rejoined Fedusa. This now brings Fedusa’s membership tally to 700 000. Media have described the move as a blow for the ANC aligned Cosatu, as Fedusa will be on par numbers-wise with Cosatu when it comes to planned pay talks in the public sector. More strikingly, Fedusa is very much anti-Zuma and pro-service delivery, as this interview with its SG Dennis George illustrates. – Gareth van Zyl
I’m speaking to Fedusa’s General Secretary, Dennis George.
Dennis, Fedusa today has just announced that the Public Service Association, which has 330 000 members has re-joined Fedusa. This now brings Fedusa’s membership tally to 700 000. Can you explain how this happened exactly?
Yes. Look, about six months ago, the leadership of Fedusa and the PSA set up a small task team to see if we could smooth out all the rough edges and all the differences to ensure that we can bring the PSA back to Fedusa. And after the task team tabled their report and suggestions, the board of PSA then decided that it was important to them to get back to Fedusa as an affiliate because currently they don’t have the ability to influence national policy because they’re not part of Nedlac (National Economic Development and Labour Council).
Dennis this move has been described by media as a deadly blow for Cosatu as it means that you will now be on par with Cosatu when it comes to the planned pay talks in the public sector later this year. Your take on that?
Yes, look there are two basic structures. The one structure is the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council. Now, this year is the last year for the three-year agreement. Therefore, the party should start a planning meeting with Treasury and start with the negotiations, so when 1st of April next year arrives, then the party has already put in an agreement that will then take us for the next three years until 2020. So, that is quite an important process and what normally was the situation in the past was that because of the alliance, the negotiations were very difficult for the other trade unions because they were not in alliance with the ANC or the Communist Party.
As the situation stands now, we believe it is much more important that we must have deeper collective bargaining and we must come back to a process where we make the public service and public administration a professional outfit to serve the people and to bring it in line with the Constitution and to bring it in with what is required for our country to grow at a faster rate than what we’ve been growing now.
Amid this de-politicisation, are we entering a new era of labour politics in this country?
I would, from our side say, because more and more people realised now that they were given a short stick by the political parties – which are only being used for them so that they can get their hands on the wealth and the riches of our state-owned companies. And now the trade unions not only have to fight for the workers, but they also have to fight to install good corporate governance that we need to rid our state-owned companies from state capture and we must make sure that we fight for a traditional commission of enquiry because, you know, we can’t allow corruption to continue and we have to bring the people to book who have enriched themselves at the expense of the people.
Talking about state capture, earlier this year Fedusa said that it wanted Jacob Zuma to resign, is your stance still the same?
Yes, we don’t only want him to resign, but we also want him to be prosecuted through a Judicial Commission of Inquiry, which we believe is quite an important structure because we want the Judicial Commission that has power to investigate, subpoena, and also to search. Because the organisation that is supposed to do the investigations currently, it seems that they have also been roped in and therefore, they don’t want to prosecute these political masters.
What do you make of what’s going on at Cosatu right now? Obviously, they’ve also recently come out and banned Jacob Zuma from their future events and they’ve also spoken out quite strongly against him. What is your stance on where they are right now? There’s a lot of talk in the media that they’re weakening significantly.
Yes, from our side, our policy is that we must unite all workers and our position is that trade unions and federations, we must work together. We have previously met with our colleagues from Cosatu when their problems do emerge and we advised them that they should try to resolve their things internally and try to do everything to keep an organisation intact, but you know, that didn’t happen and I think Cosatu has been weakened because Numsa had been expelled and then other trade unions stopped paying affiliation fees…it is not so easy to start a federation as it looks on paper, it is very difficult. We’ve been busy for more than 20 years now. Some of our unions have been operating for 90 years, so it is easy to talk about stuff starting a new union or an organisation, but to put it in practice and to keep a clean slate is very difficult.
Do you think that Zuma will depart?
In the interest of the country we would really want him to go and we hope that the National Executive Committee of the ANC would gather the necessary guts and to tell him that his time his up, he has caused enough damage. I mean, no country had in a period where we look from the 9th of December 2015 up to date; we’ve now had four finance ministers. I mean really, something is wrong that we have the kind of leadership that we have now.
What do you make of Saftu, Vavi’s new federation? It claims to have 700 000 members.
People can claim whatever they want to claim. A trade union, in terms of the labour Relations Act, has to submit their audited financial statements to the registrar and the audited financial statements normally verify whether the union has that kind of membership as people would claim. And most of the time we find that organisations blow their numbers out of proportion. But, be that as it may, we want to see trade unions from different backgrounds and so all should work together to represent the voice of working people. For us, it’s important that they should not allow themselves to be used by political parties during election times to gain support for them and after the elections. The political parties forget about each organisation. So, from our side, we’re quite happy to move forward, to work with our organisations, but to make sure that we deliver the best for our members.
So there won’t be any moves perhaps to try and block Saftu, maybe at Nedlac.
No, I mean for us, we haven’t seen any application that has come to Nedlac and obviously, the parties inside of Nedlac have the right to decide to admit the party or have the right to say, “No, you don’t comply”. We previously also had a federation called CONSAWU that came to Nedlac. They were very arrogant; we asked them for certain audited financial statements and all these kinds of things to certify that they are a bona fide trade union federation. They became stroppy, they took the case to the Labour Court and to the Constitutional Court and they lost out and today that federation is history. So, for us, you know, we’re quite used to these things popping up. But for us it’s important that we must represent our people at Nedlac and if anybody wants to come in, then he must follow the proper procedures.
With about 230 000 members from the Public Services Association joining Fedusa, what kind of impact could that have amongst the general view among some of those public workers of the likes of the President, of Jacob Zuma? Does this signal perhaps that there is a bigger anti-Zuma movement within government than what we think?
Yes, I think only the local election we had today (in Nqutu where the IFP won) shows that there’s even a rural swing against Zuma.. From the PSA side, for them, they’ve had a history of 96 years of struggle, they’ve lived under the Nationalist Party, they live under this current government. That’s the reason why they felt they want to be independent to Cosatu members that will be swinging away from the current government, a section of the constitution, clearly making the provision that we are looking for a public service that has professional ethics to promote and maintain, in the public sector and even among senior public officials.
That public sector union must look to deliver an efficient and effective use of the resources, specifically in SARS and also National Treasury where we have members and that the service that we do must be impartial. You know, and we can’t like you know, treat one person from the ANC in one way and the next person must be favoured. Public servants are there to serve as South Africans and that’s the reason why the depoliticisation of the public service is very important.
Dennis, what is your take on the future of unions in South Africa; do they still have a future?
Oh yes, you know I just returned back and we were invited to come to the World Economic Forum that was in out in Davos. We’ve also seen that business and Fedusa and others that worked together, we went together with the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and talked to different companies and we went together to New York to promote the country, to promote job creation and we’ve actually developed quite a deep relationship because business realises that the two parties. Labour and Business must work together and you saw up until the last when the president cancelled the trip that we have arranged to go and speak to the rating agencies in Boston, in London, and in New York and we saw what was the backlash of that.
So, I think it is absolutely essential for trade unions to be there, but also for business organisations to be there and that we must create together, a supportive environment where we can have our disadvantaged entrepreneurs from the townships, that we can help them to build the township economies. That we can create more inclusive growth where people can benefit and overall for our young people and we have four million of them. That’s the reason why we’re so excited because we sat together with business and we came up with a plan that we can give a million young people an opportunity to gain workplace experience and all this goodwill that we’ve done has now been undermined by President Jacob Zuma because of his irrational decision-making.
Dennis, what about the possibility of a Cyril Ramaphosa presidency, could that make things easier for federations like yourself?
Look, the whole situation around Cyril is the issue of trust. Can a person still trust the ANC to keep their word, can a person collaborate with them on the basis that they are not going to treat Fedusa one way and treat Cosatu in another way? And if you must now take steps against Cosatu Union, it doesn’t file its audited financial statements with the registrar, are we not going to have the same thing that the Minister of Labour would remove the registrar because a trade union in Cosatu doesn’t want to comply with corporate governance?
So, there are many issues around this whole concept of an alliance with trade unions and so on because, you know, government wants to be referee, but it wants to be player and it wants to be everything. So, even though I’ve worked together with the Deputy President when we did the minimum wages and we did the labour relations amendments, I am concerned at the level of trust because if I was him, I would have spoken out against Zuma and told him in no uncertain terms where to get off. And we didn’t see that really coming through to the fore and that shows up a bit of a leadership that doesn’t have backbone.
Dennis, thank you very much for speaking to me today, it’s been very interesting.
Okay, thank you Sir, keep well.