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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 3, No. 11, 2 June 2004

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Building a viable cooperative movement is a key pillar towards sustainable livelihoods and communities

By Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

From 27 to 30 May 2004 an important (in the current lingo, a truly “VIP” “Very Important People”) event took place in our country. This was the formation of the South African Housing Co-operatives Association (SAHCA). This launch brought together housing co-operatives from different parts of the country to form a single national voice and organisation to represent the interests of co-operatives involved in the housing sector. As is normally the case in our country, this truly historic event passed without any press coverage whatsoever or the presence of big names normally associated with so-called “black economic empowerment” capitalist deals. If this were white capitalist corporation giving (individual) shares to emerging black capitalists, we would have had screaming headlines in many newspapers, and on television and radio stations, “Historic black economic empowerment in the housing sector”. But because it was an event of ordinary people (who are indeed VIPs) trying to build a better life and sustainable livelihoods for themselves, it was totally ignored.

In a cynical article in the City Press of 30 May 2004, (“Poor: prized tool of the political elite”), a journalist wrote that the elites are using the poor to advance their own interests. This ironically betrays the journalist’s own elitist approach and view that the poor cannot organise themselves without elites. To crown it all and to underline this journalistic elitism, the very same cynical journalist - typical of many South African journalists and their media bosses - was nowhere to be seen at this historic event, organised by the poor with and for themselves, and without “waiting for delivery” and elites to assist them!

The formation of the SAHCA follows immediately after another milestone in our country, again hardly covered by our mainstream media, that is, the formation of a national interim committee of the South African Federation of Burial Societies (SAFOBS). SAFOBS aims to bring together into one umbrella organisation the thousands of burial societies throughout our country. These societies are in charge of billions of rands, which are currently controlled and invested by the parasitic South African capitalist financial sector. This constitutes profiteering by a few at the direct expense of the millions of ordinary workers and the poor belonging to and owning these societies.

The aims of SAHCA are, amongst others, “to provide advice, education and training to primary co-operatives, to represent co-operatives at a national level, to assist in accessing capital, to speak on behalf of housing co-operatives, to unite housing co-operatives in order to increase the level of networking and co-operation, and to create programmes for the support of members at regional level” (quoted from “A concept document on the Establishment of the SAHCA”).

For the first time, the SAHCA brings together at a national level co-operatives involved in housing and reaching out to 10,000 people in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu Natal and Western Cape provinces. Their activities include joint co-operative purchase, using government’s housing subsidy for the poor, of flats in the cities to provide accommodation next to areas of work and accessible to public transport. In addition, some of these housing co-operatives are involved in construction activities, whereby members build each other’s houses to maximise the government’s subsidy by reducing building costs, whilst at the same time seeking advice and support to build strong and sustainable structures.

This event brought home the reality that at the centre of what we call “broad- based black economic empowerment” must be the creation of institutions collectively owned, run and for the benefit of the workers and the poor. It also brought home the reality that the central pillar of broad-based black economic empowerment must be the building of a viable co-operative movement if we are to avoid the danger of transforming black economic empowerment into black elite economic empowerment.

It is for the above reasons that as the SACP we welcome the emphasis placed by the President’s State of the Nation Address on the passing of new legislation for co-operatives in a democratic dispensation. We welcome this emphasis largely because the existing legislation on co-operatives is apartheid legislation whose focus was to build exclusive white Afrikaner co-operatives to deal with the problem of poor whites and uplift them to become self-sustaining communities. Indeed, many of these co-operatives today have transformed themselves into medium and large-scale capitalist enterprises, benefiting an Afrikaner elite at the expense of even the white Afrikaner working class and the poor, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of black workers who work for these enterprises.

It is time now that we reclaim our co-operative traditions, both black and white, to build a viable and progressive co-operative movement to serve the interests of the overwhelming majority of the workers and the poor of our country. We are, of course, aware that we are not building from scratch, but from the enormous experience and energies of our people in their stokvels, savings clubs, burial societies, as well as the experiences of the poor Afrikaners in our country. The advantage of co-operatives is that they benefit a larger pool of ordinary people through common and equal ownership, collective enterprises and collective sharing of dividends for the benefit of members who are the workers and the poor. Those who claim that new layers of the capitalist class are created through elite oriented government procurement strategies, privatisation and narrow black economic empowerment are lying to our people. This is a trickle down effect that actually never trickles down!

We are aware that co-ops are not inherently progressive, but now there is a better environment to build a progressive co-op movement oriented towards meeting the needs of the workers and poor. However, there are three critical components for us to strengthen this movement.

Firstly, we need to mobilise our people to build co-operatives around the provision of their basic needs, savings and affordable credit. This is the most critical pillar in building a co-operative movement and empowerment of the overwhelming majority of the workers and poor of our country.

Secondly, we need to ensure that the state is supportive to the co-operative movement, through appropriate legislation, policies and support. For instance, we need to ensure that government’s procurement strategy at all levels and particularly local government’s Integrated Development Programmes (IDPs) do indeed prioritise the building of a viable co-operative movement. Government’s policies and IDPs should prioritise job creation and poverty eradication as the principal pillars of black economic empowerment. All the SACP structures should engage the allies and government towards these objectives.

Thirdly, global experience with co-operative movements points to the need for a party political champion for building a progressive co-operative movement. The SACP has led the way in struggling for the appropriate legislative and policy framework for building a progressive co-operative movement. We intend to be the party political champions of a progressive co-operative movement in our country. We have set an example by building the Dora Tamana Savings and Credit Co-operative which is paving the way towards a savings movement and affordable credit for developmental purposes in our country. It is for this reason that we are intensifying our financial sector campaign to ensure that the banks and insurance companies serve the interests of the workers and the poor, as these are the owners of the funds in these institutions.

Let us build a co-operative movement for genuinely broad-based black (and particularly working class) economic empowerment! We will throw all our weight behind the SAHCA initiative and the co-operative movement in general. This is genuine broad-based BEE. Let all communists engage and support these initiatives!

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