If trade unions are to take control of the concept of Just Transition, they must reframe the debate by building alliances and alternatives, says Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen.
The Just Transition is a contested concept. In the mainstream media this has pitted the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) in one corner representing the interests of workers and mining in the coal industry. In the other corner is the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment(DFFE) representing the interests of renewable industries.
Framing the debate in this manner weakens the role of trade unions and progressive civil society. This article explores why trade unions are weakened by this framing and argues that trade unions must reframe the debate through building alliances and building alternatives.
Mzansi Debate 101
A key feature of the debate on ‘just transition’ is that opponents frame each other in increasingly bizarre terms on social media platforms. DMRE is represented as ‘Luddites failing to make the transition’. DPE as ‘captured by finance capital’ and that reforms in the energy sector are meant to benefit President Ramaphosa’s companies and family.
In both instances, the debates are framed as proverbial ‘strawmen’ – depicting a position in incorrect terms so as to demean it. This form of debate poses a significant challenge to trade unions and civil society in leading the debate on the ‘Just Transition’.
The bizarreness of the debate is paradoxically commonplace. During the runup to Jacob Zuma becoming President, framing debates in ways that represent alternative positions as guided by invisible power brokers became a potent weapon. Jacques Pauw argues that during this period Jacob Zuma had built a parallel intelligence structure. Could this be the source of disinformation?
A more certain source of disinformation is the role played by Bell Pottinger in supporting the Gupta brothers. In these debates the trade union voices remained muted and muzzled out by noise. The trade unions neither shaped the debates nor were they able to build alliances in progressive civil society. A core reason is that the largest trade union federation (COSATU) threw its weight behind Jacob Zuma and with that lost its credibility amongst smaller actors in progressive civil society.
It would be foolhardy to argue that the noise on both sides of the debate is not supported through networks in business and government. Is it however not equally foolhardy to follow the parameters of this debate, especially when your job is to represent the interests of the working class?
Reclaiming the public sector
As South Africa emerges from a period of state capture there is another neglected but crucial insight. The process of state capture was facilitated by public service reforms that sought to deliver services through a ‘contracting state’. The intent was to ensure performance through replicating aspects of markets in the public sector and through growing private sector involvement in the delivery of markets. The insight is neglected because many see the only solution to public service delivery as introducing private sector investment and know-how into private markets. In the 2021 Medium Term Budget Statement, the finance minister argued for increased private sector involvement. So this must leave one asking – is the solution really “more markets”.
Proposals developed by civil society coalitions point to a strengthening of public and community ownership as a possible outcome of a ‘Just Transition’. There is little doubt that convincing the broader society about more public ownership is a difficult sell. Winning this debate is about displacing opaque networks shaping public policy choices on social media and other platforms. An alternative narrative requires a return to a trade union tradition of building alternatives and alliances.
Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen is an independent public policy analyst.