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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 10, No. 14, 6 July 2011

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Skills Development: A site of class struggle for decent work

Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

The SACP has consistently and correctly argued, over more than 10 years now, that South Africa requires a new growth path to transform our country from its current, semi-colonial growth path that continues to reproduce racialised, gendered and class inequalities, into a new growth path that is premised on addressing the socio-economic needs of the overwhelming majority of our people, the workers and the poor.

In one of the many meetings I have had with the labour movement, the First Vice President of the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), Cde Joe Mpisi recently made a very important observation that `Skills development is a class issue`, and should be treated as such by the working class. Cde Joe Mpisi might not have fully realized that, with this statement, he was capturing one of the fundamental features of colonialism of a special type in our country, which commenced in 1910 with the founding of the all white Union of South Africa.

This year, 2011, marks a centenary of the passing of one of the very first discriminatory acts of the white-ruled Union of South Africa,the Mine and Works Act, passed in 1911. This piece of legislation barred Africans and Coloureds from being trained as skilled and artisan workers. This legislation was subsequently followed by amongst others, the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924, which granted the status of `employee` only to the white workers with the particular exclusion of African workers from being regarded as `employees`. This meant that only the white workers in South Africa had the right not only to form and join trade unions, but also that they were the only ones entitled to be trained as skilled artisans.

The above racially discriminatory laws were later to be followed by the white regime`s poor white policy of the 1930`s, whose aim was to uplift and eliminate poverty from amongst white South Africans. The victory of the Nationalist Party in 1948 was the consummation of not only a white state, but a state which ended whatever pretences were there, that it was a state aimed at consolidating white minority rule, by seeking to unite all white class strata, the workers, the petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie, to consolidate the white special colonial and apartheid state.

Incidentally, as we celebrate 90 years of the existence and heroic struggle of the South African Communist Party, our Party was the first to be banned by the apartheid regime immediately after its ascendancy to power in 1948, as an attempt to smash both the economic and political power of the black working class in our country.

Cde Joe Mpisi`s assertion that `skills development is a class issue` also captures the fact that one of the key features of colonialism of a special type in our country was the restriction of skilled and managerial labour to white South Africans.

The consolidation of the white skilled and managerial domination of the colonial and apartheid regime was further reproduced and strengthened by deliberate plans to produce and reproduce cheap, unskilled (and later semi-skilled) black labour. It is this continued reproduction of the (white) skilled and managerial labour, and unskilled and semi-skilled black labour that is one of the charactarestics of a perpetuated semi-colonial economic growth path in the present.

It was within the above context that after the Second World War, with the increased industrialization of the South African economy, that the `nationalised` apartheid state entities in the energy, transport, postal and telecommunications sectors emerged. These `nationalised` entities became the bedrock of the economy, racialised employment creation and skills development for the apartheid state. It was for these reasons that these `nationalised` parastatals also became the major training ground for the production of the white artisan as part of consolidating bourgeois rule.

The current semi-colonial economic growth path that we seek to transform today must therefore tackle the class, gender and racial character of its more than 100 years character. Today`s South Africa, albeit with some changes, still reflects this history.

It is therefore of utmost importance that the intensification of working class struggles for a new growth path must critically seek to confront the racially, gendered and class based skills development.

Given the above, what are therefore the key challenges and responsibilities of both the SACP and COSATU in the current period? This amongst others means that as part of transforming and reversing the current semi-colonial growth path there must be intensive mobilization for skilling of black workers, and particularly African workers. However, such skilling of the majority of our people must be buttressed by a struggle for the de-monopolisation of the South African economy.

It is therefore important for the organised workers of our country to prioritise skills development in the same way as they prioritise the living wage and the transformation of South Africa`s workplace. This also means that worker representatives in the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) must ensure that every cent in the hands of these institutions is used to empower workers and youth with skills.

For the SACP cadres this means that skills development must be actively made to be an integral part of our Medium Term Vision. This must translate into ensuring that the state becomes a prime site for the training and absorption of youth into skills development programmes. The above must also be a critical component of the terrain upon which we must seek to transform our economy. The workplace therefore becomes an even more important site of building working class power through skilling of workers and opening up of workplaces for youth trainee entrants. The key challenge is that of making sure that such youth trainees are not used as cheap labour to replace the meaningful employment of workers, but it is properly structured with effective mentoring.

In the community sphere, part of building working class power, within the context of skills development, is that of workers and Party cadres effectively participating in strengthening the Further Education and Training Colleges (FET) by participating in their governing structures. This means mobilization of our young and old to make use of the opportunities provided by the democratic government to access skills through these colleges, especially now that access to these are now free from those who come from poor backgrounds.

Whilst the colonial and apartheid regime primarily built its economic power on the basis of the `white artisan`, ours must be a struggle not to build a white or black artisan, but a skilled and capable working class that is non-racial, non-sexist and progressive in outlook, with a bias towards the black working class. It might as well be that the bedrock of our struggle to deepen the NDR is the production of a more conscientised but skilled working class whose loyalties is to the working class as a whole. Skills development is after all a key ingredient for decent work both in the current period into the future.

This moblisation for skills development is an important foundation for creating a skilled and conscientised working class that is capable of strengthening community and shop floor structures and struggles - an important step in consolidating the NDR as our most direct route to socialism.

Indeed, as Cde Joe Mpisi rightly says, `Skills development is a class issue`!