Jay Naidoo Meets with Federations in Johannesburg

Jay Naidoo with Rose Molokoane and Jockin Arputham

By Noah Schermbrucker, SDI Secretariat

During the Board of Governors engagements in Johannesburg in August of this year federation leaders had the opportunity to meet Mr. Jay Naidoo, founding General Secretary of COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions). At various points in history, COSATU and SDI have shared interesting organizational parallels, albeit in different contexts, as social formations advocating critical engagement with formal actors to achieve more inclusive economies and cities. Both organizations seek to challenge the structural underpinnings of unequal distribution that continue to define contexts of rapid urbanization. As if to drive home the point, SDI Deputy President Rose Molokoane suggested that SDI could be understood as an “informal COSATU” during the exchange. Below are some extracts from Jay’s engagement with SDI. 


I am very aware of Slum Dwellers, and spend a lot of time in slums. What is the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit? All the evidence says that it will be a disaster. Often in life it’s not knowing the answers but knowing the right questions. You have to know what questions and in what direction you are going. The 1976 generation which I was part of, what made us who we were? What provoked us to do things? In 1968 I was 15 years old and very angry- today if you look in the world you see the anger that results in events like Marikana. On TV you see the anger in Cairo, Istanbul, Delhi- I remember we had that anger in South Africa because of apartheid. Apartheid stole our human identity and we lashed out. Anger is either positive or negative and it requires certain things to turn it in either direction. I went to listen to Steve Biko and that turned the switch on in my head. He said that in life you have nothing to lose if you are oppressed except your chains. These chains are inside your heads…this was my problem and I needed to believe that I was a human being and be proud of myself that I was black. I needed to make that decision to stand, watch and complain or to become active and try to change things. Taking action may result in damage, even dying, but what’s important is that you stand up and even if you die, you die honorably. In 1976 we were in the streets. They smashed us – thousands were detained and we went into hiding.

As students we discovered that we left our people behind…real change will come from people who are organized. For 18 years we went back to the ground. I went into trade unions. I remember standing outside Beacon Sweets handing out pamphlets and nobody wanted to take them. After a while there was an old worker he told me,  “Nobody can understand your pamphlet and secondly you are standing outside the gate and anybody who talks to you will be fired.” 

The first thing to do is to listen because you don’t have the answers. The workers know the answers- I learnt how to organize and that was a fascinating process. The best place to start was with hostel dwellers – these were the most exploited people. We started organizing the hostels – building trust was important. After a while they knew we were committed and that’s how we built the small beginnings of the union. We had no idea that there would be a COSATU. We had no money- who was going to give us money? When we started we never looked to someone else. Now I look at people differently- why do you need money to organize? I go back to that and say that you have so much. You have the law on your side, you have rights on your side, you have resources and your track record that is your biggest asset and people who trust in you and believe you. By the end of the 80’s we knew change was coming – when things get more violent this was a sign. By 1988 we were preparing for negotiations. Power is designed to create a situation of bargaining. You have to have power to engage people who wield power disproportionally. NGO’s these days are good analysts but at the end of the day its power and negotiations that give you what you want.

The RDP was about taking the demands of the Freedom Charter and turning it into a strategic plan. How do we take this into government? What is it that replaces apartheid? We were all united fighting against apartheid but what comes afterwards. We need to unite with political parties who agree with us. By the time it came to 1993 COSATU had adopted the reconstruction pact, which morphed into the RDP. It was very explicit that our key objective was meeting the needs of our people- the core was the needs of our people. The people themselves are the best to tell us about this- it’s not the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. I remember being with Joe Slovo in 1994 and we agreed that its really good that the people are heckling us- what we have to learn is that even when you are in power the best check and balance are people banging on your door.

The RDP went into government and we wanted to set the targets for each ministry. There are some fundamental mistakes we made- we all went into the silos which were there before. The thing that I discovered was not about dealing with each ministry individually but how do we look at this in a connected manner. Government is not structured in that way- we were also not all on the same page. In our own ranks there was no agreement on the plan and so that was a fundamental problem. The second problem was that we disempowered our people- lots of civil society went into government and then whom do you now listen to. We had this vision that we would now deliver what the people needed. The state alone can never deliver and it has its own agenda- we need to relook at this. The development state means in most cases that the state thinks they know what the people want. In many places across the world I find the same situation. What happens when the state, even a democratic state, assumes to know what’s best for people? People have a very small role. Civil society negotiates on people behalf.

Lets take one example, Marikana. What is the failure? It’s the union leadership. What happened was that leadership at the mine level became paid positions with more benefits than the workers. There was suddenly a division between the poorest workers and the leadership and they revolted. You can use this example- they saw that their enemy was their own leaders. Which organizations can really say that they represent the interests of the poor? Violence becomes a language- the only way in which our leaders can listen is through violence. The violence against women and children is an explosion of anger, a reflection of no confidence that leaders can adequately represent the people. In organizations like SDI that anger is organized with a clear set of demands and holds leaders accountable. This is a different set of politics.  

Indigenous people, slum dwellers, workers are all feeling the crunch. Oil companies are murdering our environment. What we need to today is ourselves to get together and articulate our views on the world – what do we feel about housing? Climate? Other organizations like the UN take us into their terrain, confuse us and convolute the issues. We need to take them into our terrain and make them listen to us. We need a new coalition globally of people who are organized and engage power at a local, regional and global level. The next time the UN must come and listen to us- and it will only happen when they come to us. I am working with civil society movement’s globally- what is the message to our people? What is our strategy and what is the power that we are building? I do not spend any time with government, especially in this country. There are good people in government as well as bad people- this is the same in unions and in civil society. We cannot give up what we stand for! Many thanks!

Rose: What I wanted to check is that now you are sitting in the middle of an informal COSATU? How can we extract more experience from you to make our organization to be better represented and acknowledged within the structures of government?  What I am trying to say is that the experience which you have- how can we squeeze this knowledge.

Jay: What I propose is make time available for strategic planning. When the government does not know what to do then you find lots of red tape. The idea is not to go with a shopping list. That’s about strategy and that’s were I think my role really is. Part of the problem is that if you look at poor people, if you look at malnutrition – those affected are children of people who live in slums and smallholdings. Every minute 5 children die of causes that we could prevent. How do we connect the dots?

I am not interested in long discussions with the usual stakeholders. How can UNICEF work with us to ask communities to demand their rights?  If you look at India 60 million people are poor & food is rotting. Who are the people who are stunted? These are people who are untouchables – 180 million people. In India you can see malnutrition at the community level. I want to understand this caste thing with Dalits and untouchables. We went to a village and 80% of the children had big stomachs. I asked who the Dalits were in this community? Everyone in this village is Dalit – the non-Dalits are living in another village. Even thought the constitution says that they have special rights these have not yet reached them.  

Who was I talking to in India? None of these stakeholders are the Dalit organizations who are actually suffering.  I took the head of UNICEF into a meeting with Dalits. And this is the sort of thing I can do to try and help you. In Mukhuru, Kenya I saw communities collect their own money and buy land and not get evicted. That is exactly what I want to support.

It is perhaps worthwhile to reflect on the notion of SDI as an “informal COSATU”. COSATU faces current debates around its orientation to the formal politics of the state in South Africa. SDI federations travel a comparable journey at the country and city level, as they struggle to negotiate the terms on which critical engagement with state institutions can produce tangible outcomes for their constituencies. Similar to union movements like COSATU, SDI’s strategy is to focus on crafting partnerships, in order opening space in formal institutions to gradually include the urban poor in citywide decision-making processes.

While the workers that COSATU represents are now part of the formal economy, SDI works with those who lives are deemed “informal”. Prior to 1994 those affiliated to COSATU were not just informal but in many cases “illegal”. Creating a framework for changing cities through broad based participation of the disenfranchised is a common heritage, and model for political change, shared by both organizations. The experience of COSATU shows how social movements can alter urban development trajectories and open up space for the disenfranchised.