Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
The volcanic ash from the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull which seriously disrupted the lives of air passengers and the income statements of airlines, reminded us that – even in a world where man has such formidable dominance – there are still things beyond our control.
While the loss to British Airways can be measured in Pounds, the loss in terms of productivity is more difficult to quantify. As the "grounded" hours ticked by, there was speculation over the possible impact on the export market, particularly regarding produce with a short shelf-life. But the immediate concern was that thousands of people could not be where they were meant to be, when they were meant to be there. How many deals fell through; how many meetings were cancelled; how many opportunities were lost?
In South Africa, loss of productivity is a debate that faithfully raises its head every year around this time. Next week, we will observe two national days and I suspect the old argument that we have too many public holidays will re-emerge. Obviously public holidays do affect productivity in many businesses and industries. But at what cost could we forgo commemorating the dawn of our democracy, or eschew marking the rights of workers which have been fought for, for so many generations?
In China, Workers’ Day is celebrated as International Labour Day and constitutes a three day holiday. We get only one day, and this year it falls on a Saturday in any case. Prior to 1994, workers and trade unions struggled to have Government adopt an annual observance of Workers’ Day. For years, black workers were barred from even establishing or joining trade unions.
In 1986, the Director of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Mr John Kane-Berman, noted that: "Apartheid rests on the fundamental absurdity that one can make use of blacks as labour, but deny their existence as people." Mr Kane-Berman realized back then that apartheid was being undermined by the growth of black trade unionism which was asserting greater political power.
In the early seventies, when I became Chief Executive Councillor of the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly, I drafted a request for the establishment of trade unions which the Executive Council delivered to then Prime Minister Vorster. This was the beginning of my long fight for trade unionism. Together with Professor Lawrence Schlemmer, I founded the Institute for Industrial Workers in Durban, of which I became Chancellor. At the time, the word "worker" in the Industrial Conciliation Act excluded black workers.
My work for trade unionism was recognised by the American Federation of Labour which gave me the George Meaney Human Rights Award together with Dr Neil Aggett, a South African trade unionist who died under suspicious circumstances. We were the second recipients of this award after the Polish unionist, Lec Walesa.
Walesa was the co-founder of the Solidarity trade union movement, and his activism contributed significantly to Poland’s parliamentary elections finally becoming free. In 1990 he became the first elected President.
Walesa’s life’s work shows that the fight for workers’ rights is part of a greater fight for full liberation and enfranchisement.
In March of 1975, I formed Inkatha yeNkululeko yeSizwe, the National Cultural Liberation Movement. In the preamble to Inkatha’s Constitution, we recognized that "colonialism, racism, discrimination, intimidation, neo-colonisation and the exploitation of man by man, pose a serious threat to the whole life and existence of a people".
The exploitation of man by man has been fought by labour rights activists throughout the world. The International Labour Organisation of the United Nations was established shortly after World War I. It was clear then that international labour law could assist in implementing social reforms. The Conventions of the ILO are today accepted as international standards regardless of how many governments ratify them.
ILO Conventions cover any worker’s right to fair wages, collective bargaining, equality of opportunity and treatment, occupational health and safety and vocational training, among other things. That means that even an undocumented foreigner employed outside the law has the right to be paid fairly and on time. One of the most contentious issues in respect of labour exploitation in South Africa involves corrupt employers preferring non-nationals on the basis that they can get away with paying them less.
This kind of corruption foments xenophobia within our communities by providing a basis for the popular – if misguided – belief that foreigners are here to steal jobs. In an environment where unemployment is high and the cost of living is escalating, any semblance of preference being given to non-nationals is a recipe for disaster.
The sad reality is that undocumented non-nationals who are willing to do dirty and dangerous work for sub-minimum wages remain the most exploited workers. Without recourse to the law, for fear of having their status exposed, they are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers who at times withhold wages entirely. Whenever they do get paid, they become walking targets for criminals because they have no access to banking services.
Under my leadership as Minister of Home Affairs during the first ten years of democracy, the entire body of policy and legislation on migration was rewritten, with the focus on protecting the rights of all people – whether citizens or not – while laying a foundation for security and economic growth.
As the Minister of Home Affairs, it was frustrating to see excellent reforms based on international best-practice being set aside by Cabinet for no better reason than the fact that I was the one who proposed them. Since I left Home Affairs, it has been frustrating to see the slow pace of progress on projects which we started. But I suppose this, like the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, is something beyond my control.
One of the projects facing interminable delays is the smart identity card, which Cabinet approved in 2001. After pouring billions into this project over more than a decade, this year the National Treasury has not allocated a single cent towards its completion. During the Home Affairs budget vote debate this month the most amazing spin was put on this issue; the hiatus in producing the Smart Card was heralded as the best way to move forward. One fails to see how this addresses the long-standing security concerns around South Africa’s identity documents.
We have all seen articles in the media about citizens who cannot work because there has been some glitch in receiving an identity document. I, more than anyone, know how formidable the task is that rests on the shoulders of Home Affairs. I have no doubt that the Minister is doing an excellent job. One cannot envy her the responsibility of accurately and timeously issuing IDs to millions of South Africans, to enable them to work and to vote.
In some ways, our identity documents are a symbol of the freedom and the rights that we will celebrate next week. While the 27th and the 1st may not be the most productive days on our calendar, they are days that remind us of South Africa’s capacity to become better. And that alone is worth celebrating.
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP