Interview: Mohlolo Kgopane, general secretary of the Malamulela Movement for the Unemployed

"The unemployed have been increasingly marginalised in society. We have embarked on a campaign to mobilise them."

When and why was the movement founded and what does Malamulela mean?
It was born in March last year and grew out of discussions among a group of people who wanted to establish the meaning of democracy in post-1994 South Africa. All around us we observed how unemployment is linked to poverty, to crime and to suicides and anomie. The unemployed have been increasingly marginalised in society. We have embarked on a campaign to mobilise the unemployed in the spirit of true patriotism. Malamulela is a Tsonga word meaning “mediator”. This is what we want to do — mediate between unemployed labour and capital.

Why have the unemployed been marginalised?
This is a legacy of the struggle against apartheid. Although the unemployed were part of the struggle and their support was vital to its success, organised labour provided the vibrant opposition to apartheid. It was seen to act not only in its own interest but in the interests of the broader community too. As an ANC comrade, a student activist and a socialist I always put forward this case myself; I always argued for socialism. But today we no longer think that trade unions can be the champions of the unemployed and those in the informal sector and we do not subscribe to socialism post 1994. Even before 1994 many people in the movement felt that the jobless could not make an informed contribution because they were illiterate or ignorant and therefore unorganisable. We cannot continue to think of them in this way. They have been to school and many have matric.

One of the ANC’s slogans at the 1994 election was “jobs, jobs, jobs”, but unemployment is rising. What do you think has gone wrong?
The fundamental macroeconomic policy of the ANC and the government is Gear. There is a clause in that policy directly addressed to our interests — labour market flexibility. This is the only practical option for solving unemployment because we must attract foreign direct investment if we are to create jobs and a larger tax revenue base. In other words the government realised that the RDP had failed and that they must find other ways to reduce unemployment. Unfortunately, Cosatu wants no part of it, so it vulgarises and rubbishes Gear and its members continue toyi-toying for increases in wages. At the same time it assumes that trade unions still represent the interests of the unemployed, as they did during the struggle. The unions argue that since one wage will be supporting a family of 14 people, 13 of them unemployed, a wage increase for one person will benefit the jobless too. But this is a false argument because it consigns that one poor person who is working to a life of drudgery and poverty. He or she cannot save to buy a house or lead a reasonable life. Such arrangements destroy the fabric of family life.

The status quo is fundamentally flawed: organised labour, big business and government are deadlocked and it’s the unemployed who suffer. I don’t think the country needs the triple alliance any longer — though it cannot be broken now with the election so close. I also don’t think there is any place for a socialist revolution. Socialism is a fine idea but it is not realisable.

What prompted your change in thinking from socialist to free marketeer?
When I was at Wits studying politics I took the standard Marxist line like most of my fellow students, though I was always somewhat sceptical about the trade unions’ understanding of economic growth. But more recently, as I watched our economy weakening, I read a lot of neo-liberal literature and this made me rethink my ideas. These are international ideas, they do not belong to any one country. We are operating within a global economy and ideas such as deregulation and privatisation are setting the world agenda. It seemed to me that free market economics can address our country’s problems. It also recognises that our society is not homogenous — there are many different groups and their interests are not identical.

How can you promote labour market flexibility when the latest labour legislation is working strongly in the opposite direction?
We have just started an employment agency that specialises in flexible labour for small and medium enterprises. We liaise with different companies and so far have placed 20 people in jobs in the formal sector. One of the things we do is to make sure they know that they do not have to join a union. Any individual has the right to join one if they wish, and we don’t want to see workers abitrarily abused, but they also have the right to opt out. We think this will encourage economic freedom and access to jobs. The job seeker has a right to access a job and an employer should have the right to determine how much people are worth. The unemployed must be allowed to price themselves into jobs and work for low wages; for a person who only has Standard 1 schooling this is going to be the only viable option. That is why we want to discourage any moves to establish a minimum wage. Beyond this we would like to see a reversal of some of the conditions in the new labour legislation that particularly impact on small businesses —like the new maternity leave regulations.

What is Cosatu’s attitude to you and your campaign?
If I had put forward such views before 1994 I could have been killed. Comrades that I used to be shoulder to shoulder with keep their distance now and Cosatu views us as reactionary. When I put forward my views at the Speak out on Poverty hearings in Johannesburg in May, Cosatu’s communications officer Nowetu Mpati told me I should be fighting capitalism, not supporting it. But a lot of people phoned our office afterwards and expressed their support for our views. Cosatu has recently started the Campaign against Neo-liberalism in South Africa, which is really a campaign against the unemployed. We have a right to be liberal, and a right to support Gear and to work towards the conditions that will be attractive to foreign investment.

Some people think that unemployment is the result of foreign immigrants taking jobs from South Africans. Do you have a policy on foreign workers?
We have no problem with legal immigrants who bring necessary skills to South Africa, but we are worried by the level of influx of illegal foreigners, especially those who commit crime. We also think there should be more government control of hawking. We want to root out illegal immigrants from Hillbrow so that the Johannesburg CBD can be regenerated and bring back firms and jobs. We could provide volunteers to help the police — they might get a pack of food in payment. We are going to explore what can be done with home affairs, because all such action must be within the law.

Are you afraid that your campaign could stoke xenophobia?
Yes, xenophobia is a real threat. We are totally opposed to the killing of any person and any responsible movement must make this absolutely clear to its supporters. But foreigners are not the issue; flexible labour markets are the issue.

What about the presidential jobs summit?
Last March we organised a march from the Library Gardens to the deputy president’s office in Pretoria to demand the right to participate in the jobs summit. We prepared a submission to put jointly with representatives of small, medium and micro enterprises. We want to be in the labour market chamber of Nedlac and also in the section that represents the community constituency, because this has been infiltrated by organised labour. Unfortunately many of the NGOs that were involved in small-scale community development projects haven’t been able to grow because government does not have the money to fund them. This comes back to the fact that its tax base is shrinking because unemployment is growing. Only foreign investment and flexible labour can reverse this.

How can the Malamulela movement develop?
Our branch in Welkom is busy working on a deal with an organisation that is transforming a former mine compound into a centre for small textile industries. It should create 4000 jobs. We are also working on a scheme with the South African Chamber of Commerce and a Swedish charity that will provide unemployed people with skills.

There is a perception in the SACP and Cosatu that we are funded by big business, the DP and the NP. This is not true. We are apolitical and don’t have funding. We depend on donations and subscription fees, which pay my salary. Our office is very small and shabby. Currently it is located in an area that is an IFP stronghold, but we have no problem with that — Chief Buthelezi has been arguing in favour of free markets for years. Our members pay just R5 a year to join and there are about 300,000 in the whole country. About 80 volunteers work full-time for the movement. Gauteng and the Free State are our areas of strongest support.