Angry and at a crossroads
Fuming over this week’s new tax law, the Cosatu head is declaring a deadlock with the ANC while being mandated to campaign for the party
It was a move that stunned many: labour federation Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini accused the ANC government of ignoring workers and preferring to impress big business. Militant and furious, Dlamini slated the “unfortunate” way that President Jacob Zuma sneaked behind workers’ backs to rubber-stamp the contentious tax amendment law that dictates how employees must spend their hard-earned provident funds.
On Wednesday, Dlamini issued an uncharacteristic and strongly worded statement describing Zuma’s signing of the bill as “an outrageous and blatant act of provocation” by Cosatu’s tripartite partner. Many read it twice.
Cosatu considers the Tax Administration Laws Amendments Act a declaration of war by the ANC against workers, who Dlamini says are the voting majority.
In an interview on Thursday, Dlamini said Cosatu was not informed that Zuma would go ahead and sign the legislation so soon after it was tabled in Parliament.
Dlamini was frustrated. He cited meetings held in December with legislators after the bill was tabled, saying he hoped there would be some consensus. Among those he met were Treasury officials and members of Parliament’s portfolio committee on finance.
“That meeting agreed to allow parties to engage,” said Dlamini.
The father of three, whose middle name is Mbongeni, is now leading from the front – marking a stark comparison with past occasions, when he was often overruled by his general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi – now his nemesis – who regularly stole the spotlight from him.
Dlamini was kept in his job at a tense Cosatu national congress in September where Vavi’s allies tried unsuccessfully to have him and metalworkers’ union Numsa reinstated.
This spelt victory for the Swaziland-born professional nurse, as he emerged emboldened with his right-hand man, former taxi driver Bheki Ntshalinthali, replacing Vavi as general secretary.
Despite all this, Zuma apparently did not pay him any heed. City Press understands Dlamini met with the president and cautioned against him signing what Cosatu believed was a law not in workers’ interests.
This week it became evident that those talks had been a futile exercise.
Dlamini said he had also travelled to Cape Town to express concerns about how Cosatu’s views were continuously being ignored and was told “a majority is okay with it”.
“Clearly, they did not take into account what we are saying,” he charged.
“The question is, who is the majority when we are talking about workers’ money? Who is this majority when the workers are supposed to be the voting majority you represent?” he asked, his voice increasing in volume.
“That majority they talk of is big business, fund managers and administrators who are direct beneficiaries of this law. They string [sic] ahead with it, without caring about the concerns of workers as a majority.”
To try to make government listen, Cosatu is now preparing for a massive protest against the new tax laws. But Dlamini hopes officials will catch a “wake-up” before the protest happens.
“We hope they will still wake up and realise this thing is wrong, or allow some space for engagement. ‘Our comrades’ mandate is clear. We need to mobilise for a march.”
In 1984, at the age of 17, Dlamini led his first protest in rural KwaZulu-Natal’s Ingwavuma High School – against an unequal education system and the abuse of school funds, as well as to demand a ban on corporal punishment.
In 1990, he joined the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union while working as a nurse at Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal, where he was elected shop steward. He led six major strikes before rising in the ranks to become Cosatu president in 2009.
The union now finds itself at a crossroads, with two contradictory mandates from its September congress – to campaign for the ANC during the upcoming local government elections and to fight the ANC government if it forges ahead with the new taxation law.
Zuma’s decision to approve the new law has placed strain on an already battered alliance, forcing Cosatu to proclaim unequivocally that it will find it hard to convince workers to campaign for its ally.
Dlamini dismisses assertions that Cosatu has misunderstood what the new law seeks to do, including explanations that workers will still be able to access their money.
“Companies are not respecting that very law. If you speak to workers who have made attempts to access their money from provident funds today, they will tell you the companies will not allow them to draw that money,” he said.
Asked whether this has been enough for Cosatu to shun the ANC in the elections, Dlamini, who is also a member of the ANC’s national executive committee, said the workers would have to decide.
As a loyal member of the ANC who took up membership in 1990, Dlamini finds himself in a precarious position. After losing the fight against e-tolls, and battling claims that Cosatu under him has been nothing but an ANC labour desk, he has a lot to prove.
BETWIXT AND BETWEEN
This week’s crisis marks a time of reckoning for Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini