Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
Throughout the world, the first of May is set aside to remember the historical struggle of workers and trade unions to achieve fair employment standards and a culture of human rights in the labour market. I am proud to be a part of that struggle.
In South Africa in the 1970s, black workers were excluded from trade unions because the definition of "worker" in the Industrial Constitution did not include Africans. This prompted me to form the Institute for Industrial Education in Durban with the support of Professor Lawrence Schlemmer.
The then KwaZulu Government was deeply involved in the big strike which took place in Durban in 1973, which became a turning point in labour relations in this country. This was before I founded the National Cultural Liberation Movement, Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe.
As the Chief Minister of KwaZulu, I sent my then Minister of Interior, Mr Barney Dladla, to support the strikers in Durban. The then Minister of Labour, Mr Marais Viljoen – who later became the State President – resented the role we played. He said Durban was outside the area which government defined as ‘KwaZulu’.
I retorted to Mr Viljoen’s attack by saying that when the government set up the homeland governments, they stated that they were to regulate the affairs of "Zulu people wherever they are". Most of the workers in Durban were Zulu and their rights were therefore a matter for my concern. In reality, my concern was for every black worker who had no trade union.
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."
Because of my efforts in support of black workers, I was awarded the George Meany Human Rights Award by the largest trade union in the world, the AFL-CIO in the United States of America. I received it jointly with a trade unionist who worked for black industrial workers in Johannesburg, Dr Neil Aggett. The circumstances surrounding Dr Aggett’s death remain suspicious.
We were the second recipients of the George Meany Award, the first being Lec Walesa, the founder of Solidarity in Poland and perhaps the most famous unionist of the last century.
My commitment to bolstering workers’ rights has continued through all the years of my public life. I believe that workers are at the forefront of any development of a country.
When I was in government and President Thabo Mbeki announced the macro-economic strategy of Growth, Employment and Redistribution – or GEAR, as it was known – I was delighted, because the ANC had previously believed in socialism. Government realised that our labour laws were too rigid and wanted to pass a law to remove that rigidity in the interests of investment.
But members of the Tripartite Alliance; the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party, revolted against what the Government intended to do. They threatened to roll mass action and that was the end of that. To this day, we still need greater flexibility in our labour market.
When GEAR was announced, I expressed concerns that the economy cannot be stimulated merely by virtue of making the correct policy statements, and I pointed out that many of the actions of government were moving in the opposite direction to the one espoused by GEAR.
Among such contradictions were the policies adopted in respect of the entire construct of the labour market and labour relations. I was very critical of the Labour Relations Act and the corporative-state-type system it imposed on South Africa.
My criticisms were partially accepted by President Thabo Mbeki who entrusted then Deputy President Jacob Zuma with the job of investigating how to bring back flexibility in our labour market. But this effort resulted in nothing and was somehow stillborn because of the overwhelming opposition of the trade unions.
At times I am criticised as being against trade unions, because I happen to agree with business that making it next to impossible to hire and fire employees deters employers from offering jobs. But history shows that I am one of the strongest supporters of workers’rights, and this criticism is unjust.
What I am against is our Government basing economic decisions on politics. Economic realities will not yield to mere declarations of policy, just as workers will not be treated fairly just because Government organizes a Workers’ Day rally.
Leadership is about more than just words. It’s about doing what is needed, regardless of how unpopular it might make you. That is a lesson the ANC still needs to learn.
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP
Contact: Ms Liezl van der Merwe,
Press Liaison Officer to Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP. 082 729 2510.