April 7, 2005

Speaker Talks on S. Africa

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Tony Ehrenreich, Regional Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) for the Western Cape, spoke yesterday in Ives Hall about the ongoing struggle in South Africa to organize workers in the face of massive unemployment, rapid globalization and a history of apartheid.

Ehrenreich began by noting the progress that has been made in the past fifteen years, when apartheid officially ended.

“We’ve come a long way in our ability to change our society,” he said, citing Nelson Mandela, a leader of the African National Congress, as instrumental in uplifting South Africa to “to great heights… against a brutal system of apartheid.”

Though blatant segregation no longer plagues South Africa, the nation, according to Ehrenreich, now faces a host of new difficulties stemming from a rapidly globalizing world.

“Globalization, while being a global system, has local actions and local effects,” he said.

At the same time that imports from around the world flow into South Africa, schoolchildren are left without computers; and often, without electricity. Consequently, Ehrenreich said, young South Africans have “no prospects of competing” in the global economy.

By his estimates, eight million South Africans – 40 percent of the population – are unemployed by “no fault of their own.” South Africa does not enjoy any system of social security. Moreover, 35 percent of the national budget is spent repaying debts incurred from apartheid.

Natalie Levy ’08, a native of South Africa, has experienced the nation’s poverty firsthand. From what she saw, unemployment was often tied to race.

“People aren’t opposed to giving black people jobs; it’s hard for them because many [black South Africans] are completely uneducated,” she said.

Levy’s observations are consistent with Ehrenreich’s statement that the world is now approaching an age of “global apartheid.” In his mind, a world in which there are “people who have so much [and] people who have so little” is dangerously fragile.

“The system is unsustainable,” he said, predicting a global response and an eventual large-scale conflict.

Multinational corporations are partly to blame for inequality in the global system, said Ehrenreich, as well as the Washington Consensus, a set of reforms proposed around the time apartheid ended. In Ehrenreich’s view, these reforms were “imposed on so many countries,” leaving local workers as “cogs in a bigger machine.”

South Africa’s economic woes, though, may pale in comparison to another tragedy sweeping across the country: HIV/AIDS. 12 percent of the country is infected, according to Ehrenreich. The epidemic in South Africa is exacerbated by the actions of other nations.

China recently tabled a law to sell AIDS drugs to South Africa, violating South Africans’ “inherent rights to medicine,” Ehrenreich said.

To work against these negative trends, COSATU works toward three main goals: “To improve material conditions of our members and of the working people as a whole; to organise the unorganised; [and] to ensure worker participation in the struggle for peace and democracy,” according to COSATU’s website.

Two major policies of COSATU also set it apart from other unions. First, it is governed by worker control, so that laborers “ultimately decide” matters of policy, according to Ehrenreich.

Second, women comprise half of COSATU’s leadership. In an effort to “undo legacies of marginalization,” Ehrenreich said, COSATU works toward both racial and gender equality.

COSATU’s unique approach to worker organization and its regional and global renown were significant enough to merit an unprecedented invitation from Cornell.

According to Prof. Risa L. Lierberwitz, Industrial and Labor Relations, Ehrenreich was the first guest invited to speak at ILR’s Union Days in its eight years of existence.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, Director of Labor Education Research, emphasized the ILR school’s desire to “build links between labor students and the international labor movement” as a key factor in bring Ehrenreich to the campus.

Patrick Young ’06, a student organizer of the event, said he felt that in speaking at Cornell, Ehrenreich helped to meet this goal and build such linkages.

“If we’re going to learn how to fight global corporations, we’re going to have to … start mobilizing; it’s a global movement,” Young said.

For some students observing the lecture, such as Nikki Leitner ’08, the event provided an opportunity to compare “the function of unions in South Africa [with] the function of unions in America.”

Today, from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., the Union Days event features a Social Justice Career Fair. At 3 p.m., there is a panel of leaders discussing Union International Campaigns in Ives Hall.

Archived article by Rob Fishman
Sun Contributor