“Let’s solve [insert problem].”
“But the unions!”
This is a conversation often had at coffee shops and braais throughout South Africa. It is a meme that has progressed so far that it is today considered to be unquestionable truth. But, as the 8 May 2019 general election has shown us, the idea that government must bend over backward, often to the detriment of the public interest, to accommodate the demands of South Africa’s trade unions lest the African National Congress (ANC) be ousted from power, has been shown to be a fallacy.
The Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) obtained 24,439 votes during the election. That amounts to 0.14% of the total votes cast. As its name implies, the SRWP made many absurd and authoritarian promises that it would honour should it come to power. Among other things, it planned to do away with labour brokers, provide free and decolonised higher education, ban private schools, and politically indoctrinate its schoolgoing members during public holidays with “socialist programmes”.
The SRWP was launched by the trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), in early April 2019. NUMSA has over 350,000 members. The party also enjoyed the support of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), which has 531,000 members. Brian Sokutu of The Citizen speculated in April that the SRWP was “expected to dent the ANC’s worker support base”.
Had all these members, or even a substantial portion of them, voted for the SRWP, the latter would today have been the third largest party in Parliament by a wide margin.
But they didn’t.
This political defeat, already being ignored by the mainstream media, is rich with implication. Before, whenever government sought to do something positive, like sell off South African Airways, reduce the size of the civil service, or relax some labour laws, the argument was made that this would cost the ANC dearly, for its trade union partners would abandon it. The ANC, the story goes, would then have great difficulty winning a general election.
The unanalysed implication of this fallacious narrative was that trade union bosses controlled how their members vote. If you are a member of Union X and the General Secretary of Union X tells you to vote for Party Y, you will vote for Party Y. Trade union members, in other words, lack agency, and are totally dependent on the political guidance of their union superiors. When the union bosses say jump, the union members ask how high. While this narrative is on the face of it absurd, this election has definitively shown it to be false in epic proportions.
Trade union members, it seems, have their own political allegiances that exist independently of the allegiances of their union bosses. They likely voted for the ANC in droves, despite party leader Irwin Jim having expected them to vote SWRP.
It is just as likely that if the Communist Party opted to participate directly in the election, it too would not have gained one seat, or would at the most only have gained one seat. There is not some large contingent of ANC voters out there simply waiting for an order from the trade unions or Communist Party to change the way they vote.
Government, it is clear, has a far freer hand to pursue rational policies that lead to economic growth and freedom. The excuse that it needs to be ever-conscious of union opinion has been proven incorrect: The unions don’t control how their members vote. This excuse is thus gone. If government continues down its current trajectory, further credence will be given to the fact that Cyril Ramaphosa and his cronies are not beholden to the unions or the Communist Party, but rather themselves misguidedly believe in an authoritarian ideology.
We fuel this false narrative at our own peril. It makes us misunderstand the true nature of the political situation in South Africa. We place ourselves at a disadvantage by assuming our political opponents always operate as an efficient, cohesive hivemind. Thankfully, we no longer have any reason to labour under this misapprehension.