Zuma’s minority rights gaffe: What HANSARD says

by The Editor

FEATURE: In a desperate attempt to recast President Zuma’s profoundly undemocratic comments about minority rights, the Presidency yesterday released a statement that does nothing more than completely and utterly misrepresent what the President actually said. But we now have definitive proof, the unrevised HANSARD of President’s Question Time is avaliable, and you can read what he said word-for-word. Flowing from that, in turn, are a number of questions about Zuma’s attitude to nature of union’s undemocratic structure, which someone should put to him.

Zuma’s minority rights gaffe: What HANSARD says

By: Gareth van Onselen

17 September 2012

No doubt with some embarrassment and certainly in a rather desperate attempt to airbrush over President Zuma’s recent comments about minority rights, the Presidency released a statement yesterday which claimed:

“It appears that the comments by President Jacob Zuma in the National Assembly, that majority rules in a democracy, has been misconstrued by the Democratic Alliance party to mean the minority has less rights in the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. President Zuma wishes to remind those who were concerned by the remarks that South Africa is a constitutional democracy and the rights of all citizens are guaranteed in the Constitution. All South Africans are equal, regardless of colour, race or creed. The President was stating a fundamental democratic principle that while all in society may have views, the will of the majority carries the day. There is therefore nothing untoward or incorrect in what the President said in his response to a question about trade unions in Marikana during, when answering questions in parliament.”

The response was forced on the Presidency after The South African Press Association reported the President to have said the following in the National Assembly:

“You have more rights because you’re a majority; you have less rights because you’re a minority. That’s how democracy works.”

That SAPA story was carried by numerous online and print publications and the comments themselves met by disapproval and riducule.

However, the quote attributed to the President is not entirely accurate. I have obtained the unrevised HANSARD from Question Time and copied the relevant excerpts – between the Leader of the Opposition, Lindiwe Mazibuko and the President. You can find the full exchange here.

Here is what HANSARD records the President as having said:

“You can’t have a union of half a thousand people because you have declared it as the union then expect to have the same rights. Sorry, we have more rights here because we are a majority. You have fewer rights because you are a minority. Absolutely, that’s how democracy works. So, it is a question of accepting the rules within democracy and you must operate in them.”

So, while there can be no doubt the President was arguing minorities have less rights – the key stand alone sentence in this regard being, “You have fewer rights because you are a minority” – SAPA didn’t get it quite right. Although, importantly, it did not misrepresent, as the Presidency suggests, the President’s intent.

To put the matter beyond doubt, one should consider the question posed by Lindiwe, the essence of which was the following:

“At the moment, the current labour relations regime states that union representation thresholds must be set at 51%, which let us to the situation where the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, AMCU, was not a recognised union at the Lonmin Mine. AMCU was therefore excluded from wage negotiations, empowering the ANC affiliated National Union of Mineworkers, NUM, to establish a monopoly at the mine….Does the President believe that smaller unions should be empowered to negotiate on behalf of their members and not be excluded by big unions like NUM in a winner takes all scenario?”

Essentially she was arguing the system is rigged: under the current system, you cannot have an formal opinion unless you are a member of a union but, in order to be the representative union, you need at 51% of the support of all members, so smaller unions simply cannot exist and their concerns, from first principles, are not accommodated or legitimate under the current system. NUM, as the dominate union, therefore has a monopoly. Lindiwe was asking what the President made of this.

By way of comparison, the situation is akin to saying South Africa can only have one political party – the party able to garner 51% (a majority) of the votes. The only way another party can legally exist is if it secured 51% or more of the votes and replaces the other party has the majority.

As things stand, it would mean we only have the ANC.

That, of course, is mad and profoundly undemocratic, not to mention unconstitutional. The very reason why we have a multi-party democracy is because South Africa does not practice majoritarianism. Your rights are secured as an individual regardless of whether or not your chosen political party enjoys the majority of support, and minority parties are an equal and critical part of our democratic order. That is the very basis of equality.

More votes does not equate to more rights. To suggest as much is not only to misunderstand the most principle of any liberal democracy but a facsist attitude.

If Zuma’s response had been, as the Presidency pathetically tried to suggest it was, to say “the rights of all citizens are guaranteed in the Constitution”, his answer to the question asked could only have been the current labour relations regime is undemocratic, if not unconstitutional. Because, as Lindiwe pointed out, it ensures the very opposite: that only the union with the majority is able legally to speak on behalf of miners – minority unions are not allowed by law to have a say.

Of course, Zuma could never say that, if he did he would cut right at the heart of COSATU, his political ally, which enjoys a similar monopoly. What Zuma very specifically said was that he disagreed with the question posed and that, as far as he is concerned, because the AMCU was in the minority, it did not enjoy equal rights. There is no way any reasonable person could arrive at any other interpretation on reading his response.

Unless of course you believe the Presidency, which is hardly reasonable, in which case he said the complete opposite.

That is not to say Zuma’s response was entirely political. It was, no doubt, also born of his demagogic attitude to the constitution more generally. Remember this is the same person who argued the ANC is “more important” than the constitution and that it exists only to “regulate matters”.

Majoritarianism is hardwired into the President and, as so often happens with him, without a prepared script he let his guard down and his bais was plain to see.

Interestingly, there is a similar issue to union representation brewing just below the surface at the moment which the unions are in a flat panic about and on which it will be interesting to see the President’s response.

The story from Finweek Magazine, at the end of this piece, sets it out in some detail.

Basically, there is a proposed amendment to the Labour Relations Amendment Bill that would require all unions to vote before going on a general strike. At the moment, the union leadership decides. The principle is exactly the same: majoritarianism rules. Were the amendment accepted, the system would be far more democratic. All union members would be required to vote and only if there was a majority in agreement would a general strike go ahead.

Vavi has argued strongly against the amendment, for obvious reasons – it runs the risk of stripping the union leadership of much of its power and that alone says much about the COSATU leadership’s attitude to best democratic practice.

But what is President Zuma’s attitude to the amendment I wonder? Someone should ask him. Will he continue to support an entirely undemocratic union regime, or speak out for a better, more democratic system? Don’t bother to hedge your bets.

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