Interview: Godfrey Debeila, president of the Unemployed Masses of South Africa

More than two million South Africans are unemployed and their numbers are rising.

When was Umsa founded and why?
The organisation began in May 1994. Immediately after the April election we contacted members of the new government to find out how they were going to tackle unemployment. It was urgent. We could see all around us the suffering and the poverty that unemployment brought. But we were very disappointed with the government’s response — they were just not interested. We would arrange meetings and the people concerned would not show up. We tried many times to see Tokyo Sexwale, for example, but he would always run away. The unemployed did not seem to be a priority for them and this was why we started Umsa. We don’t want others to speak on our behalf as if we are incoherent or incapable of articulating our thoughts. We must be consulted.
In the past four years we have submitted a memorandum first to President Mandela then to Deputy President Thabo Mbeki and the entire cabinet. We have written petitions and appealed to different departments and the nine premiers. It is always the same story with the ANC. We arrange a meeting with the director of the department of labour in Pretoria and when we get there he is not there. Or they change the time of a meeting at the last minute and disorganise us. If a meeting is after 5pm we must somehow get to Pretoria. It’s too late for public transport, so we must hike as we don’t have cars and petrol cards.

What practical proposals do you want make to the government at the jobs summit or other forum?
Umsa’s primary objective is to enable the unemployed to be get jobs or be self-employed. We need to get rid of the bureaucratic obstacles that the department of labour puts in the way of people looking for work. They won’t put you forward for a position unless you have references, but it may be a long time since you worked. You need Standard 8 to get on a training course, but many of the unemployed are illiterate. The training courses are totally useless anyway — a two-week course in welding won’t get anyone a job. It must also be made easier to start a small enterprise. To register as a closed corporation you need about R300, but banks turn us away. Poor people don’t have collateral. Because of the lack of reaction from government we are turning more and more to the private sector. We are discussing an exciting project with a private company that would provide at least 500 jobs and help the environment.

Secondly, we feel very strongly about illegal immigrants. The government must start implementing its immigration laws, so that employment opportunities go first to South Africans and not to illegal immigrants. The state is not even policing its own borders. We think this job should be handed over to us. We could manage it very effectively. Illegal immigrants, especially those from West Africa who are involved in drug dealing, have also raised the levels of crime in the inner cities. Crime is a major deterrent to potential investors but that is not its only impact on jobs. If you have been unemployed for a long period some employers will assume you must be a criminal and will not employ you. The government has completely failed to deal with crime. That’s why we think they should also commission us to police the inner cities. Many of our members are former policemen, security officers and soldiers, so they have the experience to undertake such work. We are not suggesting a vigilante-type group but a professional operation that would have the backing of government. They should employ people from Umsa to stop the killing in Richmond.

Three foreigner hawkers were murdered on a train by an angry mob following an Umsa march in Pretoria in September. What is your reaction to this incident?
We cannot comment on the matter as we are still investigating exactly what happened. We have marched and demonstrated since 1994 and there has not been one instance when Umsa was reported to be involved in any form of bad behaviour. In fact our track record for discipline is much better than some unions who have rampaged about, destroying property. We do not want to encourage violence; we are a peaceful and non-violent organisation.

You strongly oppose illegal immigrants but what about immigrants who are legally in South Africa?
We don’t oppose legal immigrants, but there is a problem when legal immigrants employ illegals because they can pay them less. Then they take jobs away from South Africans. These people are benefiting twice over from us, because so many of the countries they come from are in dire economic straits and we give them help. Rwanda gets funding from our government and there are thousands of Rwandans here getting benefits. The development of the Maputo corridor will just make it easier for foreigners to get in. Why should money be used to fund Mozambique when we need it here? These international conferences South Africa hosts are also a waste of money. The R65m that was spent on the non-aligned summit in Durban could have been used for a job creation project.

What do you think about the members of unions who strike or threaten to strike when their demands are not met?
Our argument is not with the employed. We can understand their problems. We don’t want teachers to be retrenched. The government is closing schools and breeding another generation of unemployable people.
We will continue with our demonstrations outside government departments — health, manpower, finance etc because the allocation of budgets is perplexing. All the provinces have been short-budgeted in the critical areas like education and health. These are the areas that matter to the poor and the unemployed. Meanwhile the municipal authorities are repossessing people’s beds and fridges because the unemployed cannot afford to pay their rent or rates.

Who are your supporters and is Umsa aligned to any political party?
Our supporters are the unemployed from all age groups and all races. It is difficult to organise them as we don’t have resources. The core of our support is in Gauteng but we try to take our message all over the country. We are not aligned to any party, but we arranged a meeting with the Democratic Party and their senior personnel all turned up. We had a sympathetic response from them. The ANC are very annoyed that we spoke to them and tried to suggest that we only met with them because they offered us food — which was quite untrue. During the next elections our votes will count. We will talk to all political parties and think carefully about where to place our vote.