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An interview with Tony Ehrenreich

In an interview with Tony Ehrenreich, COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) Western Cape provincial secretary, Phumlani Majavu discusses the extravagance of Julius Malema and the differences between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki's interaction with the ANC (African National Congress).

Tony Ehrenreich, the COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) Western Cape provincial secretary, is considered by many to be a ‘nice guy’, ‘a truly outstanding guy’, ‘a compassionate guy' and a ‘working-class hero’. Indeed, all these descriptions, most particularly the last one, fit him.

He is seen as a ‘working-class hero’, mainly because of his many years in the labour movement. Before he became a unionist, he was active in student politics, especially during the late 1970s and early 1980s. His first march in 1976, like most youth back then, was against the usage of Afrikaans in schools. In 1989, he became a full-time shop steward for the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA). Ever since he left NUMSA in 1990, he has worked in different organising jobs at COSATU.

After being active for so many years, he says what stimulates and keeps him going is 'working with people and fighting for a cause that is bigger than oneself'. It is the belief that ‘another world is possible', a world where there will be 'a lot more solidarity amongst people, a society that is democratic, that has socialist values, that builds public services, education, health care … and ensuring that there is more social cohesion and less fragmentation within the society'.

Even if we were to live in a better society, he thinks that unions will still have a role to play. Unions official would play 'an advisory role … rather than acting in a top down way.' Furthermore, he thinks most union officials are 'overpaid', hence their salaries ought to be 'at least halved, so that they are relatively closer to the salaries of [their] members'. The wage gap between the workers and the union officials 'poses the real danger to the organization because it separates the officials from the base,' says Ehrenreich.

What makes Ehrenreich a ‘nice guy’, among other things, is the fact that he is not only concerned with issues that affect the workers, but he is also involved in community struggles, like campaigning against drug abuse. And in 2005, when over 10,000 residents of the Joe Slovo informal settlement were left homeless by a fire that destroyed over 3,000 shacks, Ehrenreich took many by surprise when he invited the 39-year-old Noni Mpahlwa and her four kids to stay with him in his house in Uitsig. The Mpahlwas stayed in Uitsig for a couple of months until they got a government-subsidised house in Delft.

Early this year, he again surprised a lot of people when he invited his comrades to make use of his holiday house. In an article entitled 'My house is your house, comrades; Cosatu official offers to open holiday home to all', the Sunday Times reported that Ehrenreich was offering 'his friends and comrades … the use of his holiday home in the picturesque town of Kleinmond in the Overberg'.

The ‘holiday home’ in Kleinmond is not just for his close friends, but it is also for those in need of a shelter. For instance, not long ago, Ehrenreich invited a homeless family – whose breadwinner was unjustly dismissed by her employer – to make use of his house. The Sunday Times reports, 'even though [Ehrenreich] managed to help the mother of two to be reinstated, she was left homeless and would be sharing his holiday home until she got back on her feet'.

Ehrenreich told the Sunday Times that a 'holiday home, for me, is an extravagance, so it is important to allow others to live there as well'.

He does not understand how people like the likes of Julius Malema claim to be ‘champions of the poor’ while he has a 'R200 000 watch on his arm? You can’t have people being so rich in such a poor country and then claim to be the leader of so many poor people,' says Ehrenreich. Indeed, the whole thing, as Ehrenreich notes, 'is absurd'.

However, when we are talking about socio-economic issues one hopes that we could go beyond the Malema phenomenon. By that, I mean that just focusing on one individual, Julius Malema, is, in a way, short-sighted. Yes, he might be foolish and a nuisance. But our problems are far bigger than Malema.

The issue here is not individuals per se, but the capitalist system that privileges a few over the ‘restless many’. The truth of the matter is that you get wealth by impoverishing people and we can’t have the rich without creating the poor class, and that’s how the system operates and that’s how it thrives.

So rather than trying to change the behaviour of certain capitalists, I think we should maybe spend our time and energy fighting and changing the capitalist system.

Though half the country is starving and living in appalling conditions, lack of housing and without any proper medical attention, not to mention the 'educational' system in working-class communities, Ehrenreich does not think that the ANC (African National Congress) is to be blamed for this. On the contrary, Ehrenreich thinks the ANC has progressive policies. The problem, he tells me, 'is with implementation and that is directed not to the ANC, but to the leadership and how they implement the policies, so there is a disjuncture between the leadership and what the ANC policies say and what the ANC membership desires'.

'I don’t think [Jacob] Zuma has done anything that has distinguished him as a radical… He does not have an orientation that will say the ANC must go more to the left. But [unlike the old ANC leadership] what is different is that is he is prepared to listen to the alliance and to listen to the ANC. I don’t think Mbeki had any inclination, once he was in power, to listen to the ANC or to the alliance,' remarks Ehrenreich.

Since Zuma took over as the leader of the ANC, 'there is much more of a functioning alliance,' says Ehrenreich.

What is ironic about this though is that Zuma’s policies are not that different from Mbeki’s government. Yes, Zuma might listen to the alliance, but our concern is not about who is listening to whom. What matters is what he does. The poor, just like two decades ago, are still living in appalling conditions, while, on the other hand, the business sector is reaping all the benefits. In other words, it is not a matter of listening, but it’s really about delivering the services that the people need. Can Zuma do that?

Well, Ehrenreich, just like any COSATU top-brass thinks that Zuma is well capable of serving the interests of the working class. 'How is Zuma going to be redirected?' he asks. 'I don’t think by any pressure from outside, it’s gonna be the pressure of the ANC as the mass based organization that will hopefully hold him to ANC’s policies.'

Ehrenreich thinks that the ANC is the only organisation that can bring about social change in the country. 'The ANC is the most popular and most powerful organisation in the country', hence to 'get things done I think the ANC is probably the route.' This is largely because the 'ANC has the legacy of the Mandelas, and the struggle credential that is incredibly popular among the ordinary people.'

He is, nonetheless quick to note that this does not necessarily mean that issue-based organisations have no role to play. In fact, he thinks it is essential for people to build up 'issue-based campaigns, and put more pressure on the ANC and generate a participatory democracy. But if you want to change the world, change South Africa then the ANC is certainly the most important vehicle in which to be effective…'


* Phumlani Majavu is among other things a freelance journalist.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.