About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

15 Feb 2000: Ehrenreich, Tony

Click here for more information on the Interviewee

POM     Let me get to what I see as some of the crucial things. One, you have this long argument over GEAR, every day when you picked up the paper it was GEAR, GEAR, GEAR, and suddenly now it has disappeared out of the papers altogether. Two, you have the interview Trevor Manuel gave to The Independent on 9th January indicating that the government was going to move in a much more 'right wing' direction with regard to its economic policies, his attitude towards the unions was creating more flexible labour laws. A lot of other things that had been fought for in the first government seem to be on the table to be given away in this government. Third is AIDS. I've been spending an awful lot of time working on AIDS this time around, I find no coherent government strategy. In fact the other day I picked up a newspaper that said the level of deaths from AIDS this year would probably result in a dropping in the rate of unemployment. As long as AIDS stays within the bracket of the unemployed and the poor then it's kind of surplus labour. You don't hear it said outright but you hear it. It even starts creeping into the educated classes, skilled classes, that we must start taking things seriously.  Perhaps you could address those three and address them in a context of the campaign, the mass action that is being planned for 6th March?

TB     Is it OK if I just talk through them all at the same time?

POM     Yes.

TB     On the question of GEAR when we went to our special congress in August of last year I think the position of COSATU was reaffirmed, that COSATU rejects GEAR. We are responding to GEAR differently. What's happening now is that there is much more of an engagement of the elements of GEAR because at the one level it was an ideological fight and it was confined to that. Now we're talking about questions of industry policy, we're talking about the tariff levels, we're talking about interest rates, we're talking about the deficit reduction programme. So there's a lot more engagement on the details of GEAR. We're still maintaining our opposition to GEAR but it's pointless just saying in the media all the time, well we're opposed to GEAR as government's macro-economic strategy because some areas of GEAR we'd actually support: questions like the 6% goal targets that they set themselves; questions like the 100,000 job creation per annum. Those would be measures that we support but there are negative aspects of GEAR that we're opposed to and we're pursuing our opposition to that. We've taken up as one of our demands linked to our campaign for jobs, the whole question of the trade liberalisation programme that the government's embarked on. So there's a continued engagement around that and if we can't reach agreement on that measure then that will be one of the bases on which COSATU goes on strike when it does go on strike and what the programme of action is about. There is still a long discussion about the question of macro-economic policy, there's big engagement about it.

     One of the more recent areas has been the question of inflation targeting and we see that when it came to inflation targeting the process of engagement was a lot different. There were meetings within the alliance around inflation targeting, there were meetings between COSATU and government and business and the other unions and other sectors of society around the question of inflation targeting so government is dealing with it differently. The hard line approach of just imposing economic policy, it appears that they have taken a step back from that. Part of their thinking is, the changed thinking that comes still from them, is that they really want this partnership. We think it's reinforced by the kind of structures that the President has put in place, he's got the Investment Council that deals with international big businesses, big business in SA and that deals with the union movement within SA. So there is a different approach we think this time round. There have been lots of discussions around that. Our position on inflation targeting is that this is one of the areas of micro-economic policy but there is a whole range of other areas that equally should be discussed. We should set targets around employment, target around social services, many of those areas that are essential to the poor instead of just creating this climate that appears only to be designed to business, thinking about more stability, more clarity on what the environment is within which they do business. I don't want to comment on the details of inflation targeting because, of course, as the unions we would support low inflation for all of its reasons. So that's what's happened in relation to the debate around GEAR. It's still very much out there. There's still a huge discussion.

     On Trevor Manuel and his statements in the paper when he was interviewed, and one of the things that was significant in what he said was that he was misquoted and that many of the areas that were raised were subject to negotiation. But what it has done is that it raised the impression that government was going to come up with this big bang, was going to move dramatically to the right. Our impression is that that hasn't happened in a real sense around the substance because if you take the President's speech he spoke about a whole range of areas. He spoke about the need to look at the labour market and examine a number of other areas. But he also said that his ministers would respond on the detail of it and when Shepherd did respond to the detail of what they intended doing around labour laws there weren't that dramatic changes. Sure it's a haul back to the measures that we have and there will be discussions about it and no doubt there will be a contest about it but there wasn't a situation where there was an earth-shattering announcement where government completely gave up on the framework of labour market policies they set for themselves. There are some areas affecting small business especially that they want to change and that's an area of concern to us and something we'll be taking up in the discussions that will follow because the process that it will take is that it will go to Nedlac for discussion, there will be a drafting team of government. We have submitted some of our demands around what we see should be areas of the labour market that is revisited.

     So it hasn't been the kind of dramatic shift to the right. Sure it's not the ideal situation. From our point of view clearly it's biased towards business and it's an issue that we should continue to be taking up. But we think that it certainly hasn't fulfilled the prophets of doom who said that there was going to be this complete shift to the right. And after the announcement in the President's State of the Nation address there were a number of other things that were said in relation to what we're doing around inflation targeting, some other discussions around policy questions. So there are a number of areas of engagement and I don't know if it's only the President's own style because he feels particularly confident about engaging around the table and hopefully trying to bring people around to his own view. There is an openness certainly to engage on the issues and there hasn't been such a big bang while there's been some threat to some of the rights we won, especially for the most marginalised workers and issues that we do want to take up.

POM     Could you relate this to AIDS? I've talked to maybe 25 or 30 people in the last few weeks about AIDS, the social and economic and political consequences of AIDS continuing at the level it's now at in SA, what the implications are for the whole process of transformation. It seems to me that AIDS is the biggest single problem that this country faces and yet when I ask ministers what's the most important challenge facing the country none of them say AIDS. They say crime, poverty, this and that, and then I say, "Well, why don't you say AIDS?" And they say, well they're all related in a way. Well they are and they aren't. Nothing seems to be happening in the sense of there being any coherent, deep, political commitment to heading this bang on particularly since if jobs are to grow you need medium and small sized business and this is where the economic impact of AIDS will be felt most, mostly in terms of absenteeism, health care costs and all the other things and it's putting out of business the very people you want to put into business. When it's on COSATU's agenda, how do you push government on the issue? When you meet with people like Trevor Manuel or others, the Labour Minister or other officials, do you say, "When you put together your estimates of how this economy is going to grow, you say it's going grow 3.5% next year, what variables do you use in your modelling to take into account the impact of AIDS? Do you take it into account at all?"

TB     Let me talk a bit about AIDS in the unions and then give an impression of what I think government is doing or not doing about it. We had our last congress in August last year where we reaffirmed that we should really take big steps around our contribution to both addressing AIDS, making sure that we stop the spread of the virus and just generally finding new ways in which we can contribute to a situation where the infection rates taking place at the moment are arrested. So AIDS is certainly a priority for the union. There have been surveys conducted in some areas of employment which has put AIDS above 25% of people in some of the mines. Some surveys or projections have been done, and in some workers who work in the transport industry, the truckers who travel through the country have also had high levels of AIDS. But generally the rates of infection are rising at an alarming rate. Part of the problem, we think, is that there is still a reluctance to come out openly about AIDS because many people are dying but they are not dying of AIDS according to what's being said by their families; it's TB or pneumonia or something else, or people are just hidden in the last couple of months of their life when they really become really ill. But I think there has got to be a lot more awareness and that's what we are doing, having a lot of education programmes around awareness mainly with our leadership, our shop stewards. We had a big campaign last year where we had on World AIDS Day general meetings in all of the factories, well in most of the factories, it was planned for all the factories, and this was after we trained our shop stewards on what to deal with in these meetings.

     The focus was to both deal with the question of AIDS awareness and prevention, safe sex and those kind of measures, but also to start dealing with the question we haven't focused on before and that is the treatment of AIDS, whether at a basic level just ensuring that people are going to live healthier, healthy food, clean water, those kinds of things. So at that level AIDS counselling, AIDS awareness, encouraging people to go for testing, fighting with the pharmaceutical companies for the drugs to resist the effectiveness of the disease. So we've done a lot of work around that, we're employing a dedicated person to deal with the question of AIDS, hopefully this person will take up employment by latest 1st  April. We've been involved in a number of campaigns.

     From the side of the publicity we've been involved and the government's been involved and business has been involved so there's a lot of publicity around AIDS and HIV awareness. They have now put together the National Aids Council where COSATU has got representation and a number of other organisations. That is also supposed to look at the question of AIDS and come up with developments and programmes of how we can contribute to addressing it. That would be their main purpose. So there have been lots of, at one level, efforts to do that. Surprisingly on the AIDS Council there are probably about 80% of the ministers who are representatives of government on the AIDS Council. Trevor Manuel is one of them, but I think we've got to mainstream the question of AIDS, the impact and the effect of AIDS on the economy. I think that you're right, when projections are done, and this article was the first one that was really scary because it does say that does this mean that we don't really have to worry about unemployment because the people who are unemployed are going to die, so worrying about job creation pretty soon there won't be people to fill those jobs you do create.

     I think a lot of work is being done. We've got to ensure, and the profile of HIV and AIDS awareness, the war against AIDS is increasing all the time so, sure, we may think that a year back we weren't doing enough but it is increasing and it is getting better. So from that point of view we think we should continue with those efforts, continue to push. The government has a different attitude towards questions like AZT and the other medication that people take but we don't agree with that.

POM     I can't find a single person who agrees with the President's position. The evidence is overwhelming from about 100 countries that AZT for pregnant mothers works, and suddenly the debate stopped. There was a debate going one day and suddenly it just fizzled out.

TB     I think we said that we don't agree with him. We've had a meeting with him one day where he went into some reason as to why exactly they're saying so, somebody did a research paper saying about the damage of AZT and benefits of it are not empirically there's no empirical evidence to support it or deny it, all kinds of things, he went into a whole session on that. But we don't agree with him. We think that of course these medications do play a role and that we should continue to agitate for people to get it and for us to be able to have it available more freely and cheaper. I think generally people disagree with him so it's going to be interesting to see what the AIDS Council says on a question like that. I'm not sure where their own position comes from. I think one of the issues was a cost consideration and I just think they were not prepared to put up the money for that and there is an attempt to find justification for why they didn't put up the money for it.

POM     There's another drug that's available but the medical professionals tell me that every pregnant mother in the country could be supplied with this at a cost of  - just twice the cost of the infamous Sarafina play a few years ago. It cost R27 million I think. I'm confused because on the one hand people talk about poverty, talk about jobless growth, another problem, and you have this vast pool of unemployed and you have AIDS slowly eating into them, but I believe that that population - as in other countries, it creeps up into other higher income brackets and one doesn't get a sense of - that the skill level still in the country is so thin that you can't take out one generation of skilled people, you're taking out your economy, you'll have no economy to govern.

TB     I think you're right. The point that I'd like to reaffirm is the fact that there is a lot more work being done about AIDS. I think there will be a contest of the ideas that the President's put forward and people will challenge that a bit more openly. One of the unfortunate things that's creeping into our society is that people appear to be a bit silent in the face of, not opposition, but in the face of a view from the powers that be, from the President and the Cabinet.

POM     I think Dr Mamphele Ramphele when she was leaving the University of Cape Town in her farewell address, and this was the first time I'd ever heard it, she said the danger about our democracy is that the silence is so deafening.

TB     Of course. It's a concern. I am not sure if it feeds into this whole idea of the way in which patronage is extended and that people are all having ambition of some government employment at some time. It's difficult to place it but I think there is an unwelcome silence and I think it's an area where it should certainly be challenged. More and more people I certainly know in the corridors who I speak to are becoming more vocal again on the question of AZT and challenging the ideas put forward by both the President and the Minister of Health. So it appears that in that area at least there is some engagement and we'd certainly add our voice to it once we are able to.

POM     Two areas, globalisation, one, and privatisation. On a world scale SA is still a small, developing economy. To what degree does it have control over its own economic fate? Did it get independence at the very time when the concept of sovereign nations was simply going out of existence?

TB     I think so.

POM     It was like, my God! We're 50 years too late.

TB     That's probably why we got independence.

POM     What do you do about that?

TB     I think a couple of things probably. On the one hand there is a realisation that there are attempts to undermine the whole of the state and that that's a big demand from the union side, our opposition to whole-scale privatisation, our insistence that basic services must be provided by government institutions whether national or at local level, so we're continuing to engage around those areas. Government has said up front in some of the discussions that part of their plans for privatising is to get foreign investment into the country and it's linked to their whole model about what's happening to the economy. Part of the problem has been that they haven't had enough foreign capital at key moments within the way in which the economy was going, so there wasn't investment in capital expenditure and so on and they feel that when they privatise it will free up more money and it will bring in more foreign capital to be able to start investing in some of those areas. That's linked to their own plan about seeing foreign - an export-led growth path but they see as foreign investment as being the basis of developing the capacity for manufacturing that would be exported and that would lead to the growth path in SA. Something that probably things that have happened in other developing countries that have reached certain levels of economic growth but that we have also seen declining in the last couple of years, that model of export-led growth certainly doesn't seem to be as popular. Some commentators at least say that there's an over-production at the moment internationally so to add and try and feed into that, they question the logic of that, but that is part of government's plan.

POM     Still most domestic business exports its capital in terms of fixed direct investment, they send more abroad to be invested in other countries than they are prepared to invest in SA and if I am an outsider and I would say look at what South African citizens are doing?

TB     They don't want to invest.

POM     Why the hell should I do it?

TB     Of course.

POM     This goes back to what I was saying, again, AIDS, if I'm a foreign investor and I see this very high level of AIDS, the rate is still going up no matter what the government is doing, why should I invest $100 million in fixed capital investment where the odds are that half of the people I am training may be dead five years later. There are other places to go where you don't have the same kind of risk factors involved. So I find if an economic model postulated on attracting large amounts of foreign capital that you've got to chase the model instead of making assumptions that are simply not borne out by reality. We can't go along saying we have a 6% rate of growth, it's not going to happen in the next five years, ten years unless there's some kind of an explosion some place. Someone was saying, how do we start thinking differently? How do you put those people in the informal sectors to work? How do you build up the informal sector? How do you take care of their health benefits, the services you were talking about, water? How do you keep them alive so that when you invest in them your businesses begin to thrive?

TB     Now of course it's a big question and that's the fundamental question within our economy at the moment, about what kind of growth path are we going, is it enough just to try and create an environment for foreign investment when clearly it's not happening for some of the reasons that you mentioned but also for others. So it is a big question. I myself, I don't think we have in COSATU tried to quantify both the impression that AIDS has on foreign investors but also what the projected income is going to be, whether we are accurate in our assumptions about a whole lot of stuff related to economic growth, if we're ignoring the impact of AIDS in that. I think it's a crucial question. We thought about AIDS only from the illness point of view and the fact that it debilitates people but it has a hell of an economic consequence on those people who are economically active at the moment.

     But government has taken a path of development that is certainly welcomed by a number of international finance institutions, from the World Bank. A lot of their policies are designed to get a higher credit rating and so their orientation is one that says that the state really has very little control over what it can do on its own, that the way in which an economy grows, and in fact Trevor Manuel says this, he says that the government doesn't create jobs. So that gives an indication of their orientation and they firmly believe that it's the right way to go. So certainly that is the problem, their engagement in international training forums is an attempt to try and establish alliances with other countries from the south but making sure that there's a lot more fairness around trade by linking trade and labour standards. In those respects they have quite a cohesive policy, their policies towards Southern Africa, setting up the Southern African Development Community and the strengthening of that. Those are positive measures but it's all of it linked to an ideal that the global economy will accommodate everybody and that the third world or developing economies will benefit from that. It's ten years later since we started liberalising our economy, the early nineties, and we haven't seen the benefits. I don't think we will.

POM     Just for an anecdote, a story told when President Mandela was taking his farewell tour of the European Union and all kinds of honours were being heaped on him, and an aide leaned over and said, "Mr President, now is the time to ask for the money", and he just whispered back, "Yes, they can take out their pens because there's no ink in the pens." The whole difficulty of how the EU Agreement shows what a harsh world it is out there when everybody thought at the end of apartheid they would be able to rush in and say you're so special we're going to give you all kinds of goods.

TB     And even though those were the undertakings, that was the undertaking that was made by the European Union amongst others to support the democratisation process, here was an opportunity through a trade deal where they could do that.

POM     Four or five years down the line?

TB     We're not the flavour of the month any more. But it's about competing interests, it's nice to say on a platform that, yes, we're going to provide you with assistance but when you actually have to compete with your own farmers or your own domestic pressures then they don't, then there's not the minimal sacrifices required to open up their markets for SA and other countries.

POM     How much time do we have?

TB     I have about five more minutes.

POM     OK. The changing composition of COSATU, the plurality of the members are now public service employees not manufacturing workers. This came out of your Research Department or whatever. What are the implications of this in terms of what the government will want to cut is what they would call the surplus number of public service employees. It would put some kind of direct confrontation between government and yourselves, it makes it almost inevitable. They say we must cut, we must cut, we must cut. On the other hand you say we must protect the jobs of our workers, we are protective of our workers. How are you going to trade off on this crucial issue?

TB     Let me try and respond in two ways because I think on the one hand you're absolutely right that the public sector unions are playing have a lot more of a presence in COSATU, they are amongst the biggest unions as a bloc in COSATU which is a lot more than the influence that they have had in the past. While private sector industry has largely restructured in the nineties, between 1992 and 1996, big restructuring and big job losses, in the public sector there's a big pressure on them to cut jobs. There have been the retrenchments of the teachers, there have been cuts in other sectors of public employment but there's now again an announcement by government that they do want to cut their employees. So this is the number, what the President says. But then the minister, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, would for example say that the kind of cuts that they envisage could be accommodated by people who are over retirement age leaving. So there's a big difficulty with them how do they manage it, how do they manage the inevitable conflict that there will be with the unions around this issue? We've insisted that an audit must be done of what the levels of skills are, what the jobs are that are required so that we can from an informed basis, and from a mutual basis, plan the way in which we proceed. Government is now trying to back out from their undertaking to do such a scientific audit on the extent of employment and coming up with some of these noises that talk about cutting the number of public sector employees. So it's an area that's going to lead to a battle.

     I think at the special congress again there was a resolution taken by the COSATU that the federation along with the public sector unions would fight against these job cuts in the public sector because of its socio-economic implications on the rest of the economy, on just people's levels of income. At the moment there are about ten dependants on every worker in SA, especially blue collar workers and workers are members of COSATU. And so to further cut back those jobs would be to put people in worse socio-economic conditions. So we're going to be opposing that and there's going to be big conflict around it if we can't find the way to address the differences that exist at the moment.

POM     Your opponents' wish is always that there's confrontation between COSATU and trouble in the alliance and the alliance is going to split. Do they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the alliance, that on the one hand you can have these very serious policy differences but that it doesn't affect your political cohesiveness? Or do you think that in the long run perhaps an inevitable outcome of such deep-rooted policy differences in the approach towards macro-economic development and service delivery and sustainable development will lead to almost a natural parting of the ways, that you've a growing black bourgeoisie and on the other hand you've a growing black underclass, that now the class difference is becoming as important as the race difference but this, again, isn't sufficiently acknowledged?

TB     Yes. I think that the developments inside the country certainly put a whole lot of pressure on the alliance but the alliance wasn't formed to either deal with negotiations around the public sector, whether it's the wage rates or questions of the number of employees, that's a core function of the union in that sector and they must fight that battle. We must continue pursuing our position. But there are a number of other objectives where we do have it's funny when I hear myself saying 'the official line' it sounds a bit empty when we do have strategic objectives that we jointly pursue about the democratisation of SA, about the provision of basic services and the building up of our country, we maintain our joint positions on that. We have differences on the best way to achieve that. The ANC has a particular view and it appears that one view in the ANC at the moment is the dominant view but that doesn't mean that there's not opposition to that within the ANC. The ANC is the governing party, we wouldn't want to give up on the ANC, give up on our influence in the ANC because we do through the alliance process, we are able to influence a number of areas of development and I think we continue to agitate and advance our position and try and build more and more allies within the ANC but the ANC is not politically a class neutral and there are contesting forces within the ANC and we think we should continue to agitate for our position in the ANC. So the alliance will continue for the foreseeable future.

     Certainly in my view it's how we are able to assert ourselves more, how we are able to ensure that the working class interests are put higher on the agenda. It certainly seems that there are some interests at the moment who may favour the development of a black bourgeoisie because that's what appears to be developing at the moment and that's not what we in the trade unions struggled for in SA and that's not what we see as the transformation. So it's a contest within the ANC. We are quite an influential and quite a powerful bloc, we fight in the ANC and we fight outside of the ANC but then we do have agreement on some areas.

POM     Is it a kind of a variation of what Lyndon Johnson once famously said about an opponent, "It is better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in".

TB     Probably. It could get worse and the ANC could become completely right wing which could lead to a clear battle with the ANC around more issues than there are now. Many of the noises that are still made now are that there are many people within the ANC that would want to see them also separate a relationship with COSATU, also take more right wing policies. So I think the contest will continue and we will continue to try and assert our influence over the ANC so we will have two bites at the cherry.

POM     Thank you. I know you have to run. Thank you for seeing me at such short notice. Do you have a card?

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.