South Africa: 'Our problem is capitalism'

June 12, 1991

RONALD MOFOKENG is a worker at PG Glass in Johannesburg, a leader of the Chemical Workers Industrial Union, the treasurer of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and a member of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. He has been involved in the independent trade union movement since its inception in the early 1970s, when he organised his factory and formed the then illegal Glass and Allied Workers Union in 1973. Mofokeng was in Australia recently as part of a COSATU delegation to a conference with trade unionists from countries of the Indian Ocean rim. DIRK HARTFORD spoke to him for Green Left.

You seem to have a lot of responsibilities for someone with a full-time job. How do you cope?

It's a matter of "must cope". By the end of January, every weekend except one had been filled with meetings for 1991. In COSATU all affiliates, and COSATU itself, are constitutionally bound to have full-time workers as office bearers at every level of the organisation. We are not paid for our union work. Only the secretaries are paid full-timers.

This is one way of keeping worker control over our organisation. We from the factory can't forget what it is to live under capitalist exploitation.

Now many of us from the unions are also active in building the ANC and SACP. We must lead in this transition period because we have the experience of building mass organisations.

How has the violence in South Africa affected organisation on the factory floor?

COSATU is in alliance with the ANC and SACP. But we have tens of thousands of members supporting Inkatha. So far there have been no resignations from COSATU, because the Inkatha supporters are workers who trust COSATU to fight for their needs as workers.

But there are serious tensions caused by the violence. This makes it difficult to discuss the need to organise self-defence against the attacks. Because if you say openly where the attack is coming from, then Inkatha supporters in the factory can feel threatened.

There are no easy answers. Zulu hostel workers are being used by forces from the state and elsewhere to unleash terror in the townships. Typically a group of "leaders" arrive at a Zulu hostel in the middle of the night, wake everyone up and load them into buses, saying they are going to get comrades who are ostensibly anti-Zulu people. It's a case of go or else. People are too scared to question.

From then they are part of the problem, and they are worried for themselves, worried for what might happen to them if the community of violence and counter-violence is created that can get a momentum of its own. This suits the regime perfectly because then they declare that area an unrest area, which is like a state of emergency.

We must not fall into the trap of driving the hostel workers into the hands of Inkatha. For example, if we demand that the hostels be demolished — as we have done — we must make sure that this is done in consultation with the hostel-dwellers and that there is alternative accommodation available for them. Otherwise it can seem as though we want to destroy the only places where they have some shelter.

When we began organising the unions, our organisers were in the hostels every night, because those workers were the backbone of the unions. Now the union organisers never go there, because they think those workers are already organised. But the violence has shown that they were not organised enough.

What is de Klerk's position in all this?

De Klerk is not a man of integrity. His main aim is to move away from legal apartheid while maintaining as much control as possible in the "new" South Africa. And of course to make sure that the capitalist system is not threatened in any way.

Nothing has changed in South Africa except our organisations are unbanned and our leaders released. These are big things, but they are not things we are grateful for. They are our right, and we fought and died for that right. Now that we have them, we have the worst violence ever, which is draining all the energy of our unbanned organisations and leadership.

De Klerk has all his power, and now he wants to pretend that he is not involved in the violence and that all he need do is to get these warring blacks together. His army and his police and his death squads and his connections in the black movement are in the thick of the violence.

How is the rebuilding of the ANC going?

Paid-up membership is currently around 600,000, whereas we were hoping for a million. But local and regional structures are in place with democratically elected leadership. We are waiting now for the national conference in July to elect the national leadership.

The violence is seriously affecting our ability to organise. Often branches can't meet, and people are scared to identify themselves with the ANC because they could be targets. It is not an easy task to rebuild an organisation, after 30 years of illegality, in the middle of a virtual civil war.

The Australian government has indicated that it is prepared to lift sanctions. What would COSATU's response be? We have been sanctioned by the whites in South Africa for over 300 years, not by the West for the past few years. We have been living in poverty and degradation for decades, and sanctions has not made that any worse.

Sanctions were imposed because we asked for them. They are still a powerful weapon until the point where the process of change is irreversible. We think that the international community must trust our judgment on when that point has been reached. If they don't, there will still be the workers of South Africa to reckon with, and we will impose our own sanctions on all goods coming into or going out of South Africa.

What is the position of COSATU in the current situation?

COSATU remains the best organised and largest mass organisation in South Africa. We have 1.2 million paid-up members, and a teachers' union of 200,00 is planning to affiliate soon.

We have forced the state to amend the Labour Relations Act after a two-year campaign of mass action. We are focussing on organising the weaker sections — farm, domestic and public sector workers — to bring them in line with industrial workers. We have campaigned for a Workers' Charter and demanded that worker rights be enshrined in a new constitution, including the right to strike. We are beginning to consolidate links with unions throughout southern Africa.

Just last week we resolved on a general strike and national consumer boycott if traditional weapons [carried by Inkatha supporters on the pretext that they are a cultural heritage] have not been banned by mid-June and all prisoners released and exiles allowed to return home. Workers in COSATU are hungry for liberation and prepared to take action to satisfy that hunger.

What kind of society are workers looking forward to?

We have always been a socialist society, and that is still what we are aiming for. We know about the problems in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but to us that is not a problem of socialism. That is a problem of bureaucrats acting in the name of the workers.

Our problem is capitalism. It is capitalism that makes 40% of us unemployed. It is capitalism that pays us starvation wages. It is capitalism that won't provide houses for the millions of homeless unless they can make a profit from it. This has been our experience of capitalism, and no government, no matter what colour it is, can change this unless the system is changed. Workers are saying that we need socialism, a system where the needs of the people come before bosses' profits.

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