So where were the unions?

MOLWENI … GOOD MORNING … GOEIEDAG … Once upon a time and place, in this project for a model of rural communications …

When we looked under our beds for fugitives from Mangaung Prison, we found several sets of eyes staring back at us out of the dark … So we asked an old friend, the renowned journalist and author Terry Bell, whether he could cast some light on the Thabo Bester saga.

Terry and his wife, Barbara, visit Hanglip Farm from time to time, and are also known for intrepid canoe trips away from refugee camps and education centres in the good old struggle days, among others near the Tanzanian border …

Being a trade unionist of note, Terry has also, at Maeder’s invitation, interacted with farm workers on Hanglip Farm, to their mutual edification ….

But be that as it may:  what do we know or think about the Thabo Bester saga, seeing that Mangaung is just up the road from Colesberg and even from Hanglip Farm?

And seeing that, in the old days, Colesberg’s own prison provided welcome shelter to a group of political prisoners – including Albie Sachs – being transported from Pretoria to Cape Town in the middle of winter … but that’s also a story for another day … as are other tales currently swirling around our local correctional services facility …

So, we corralled Terry as guest writer, because, well, he knows a prison or two, because there are these sets of eyes under the bed in this relatively peaceful time, and because there are human rights involved, even in and around prison. … So over to you, Terry….

Privatised prisons and the Thabo Bester saga

By Terry Bell

Never mind the bizarre circumstances of the escape from a maximum security prison of the convicted rapist and murderer who currently goes by the name of Thabo Bester. The reading, listening and viewing public will probably be enthralled for months to come as additional reputable reporting, accompanied by speculation and rumour, surfaces.
This should continue to reveal that much of South African life looks like an often grotesque satire. But beyond the ghoulish details of this particular saga, several underlying problems have been exposed that must, for the sake of a healthier future, be fully dealt with. Whether they will be is a matter for conjecture.

Not least of these is the question of the global growth of private, for-profit prisons and the role that trade unions have, could, and perhaps should have played. Because, as in any case where profit is the priority, the potential for abuse exists: a situation where trade unions can be a bulwark against corruption.

In 1999, when the two private prisons in South Africa — in Mangaung and Polokwane — were being built, the combined labour movement opposed the move and warned of the dangers. However this 25-year public-private partnership deal between the ANC government and then British owned G4S company was hailed by the opposition Democratic Alliance.
At the time, with an election looming, most union ire was directed at the DA for having welcomed the introduction of ‘productive labour’ to prisons. However, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) also announced that it was considering legal action to try to halt what the union saw as a move toward ‘slavery’. The union would also be recruiting members among the new prison staff.

Comments about slavery were borne out by the leading American criminologist Professor Randall Sheldon. Interviewed by this writer, he confirmed that prison labour was ‘a major industry’ in the US as companies with well-known brand names took advantage of ultra cheap labour.

Just how cheap the labour was — and proportionately still is today — was also highlighted in research by US writer Eve Goldberg. She gave the example of an American garment worker, once paid $8 an hour, who loses his job when it is outsourced to Thailand to workers paid $2 a day.

She noted: ‘Unemployed, alienated from a society indifferent to his needs, he becomes involved in the drug economy or some other outlawed means of survival. He is arrested, put in prison and put to work. His new salary: 22 cents an hour.’

Given what we have now heard about of some of the goings-on at Mangaung Prison, such simple exploitation is old hat. With modern communications technology, it seems it is possible to operate multi-million dollar digital scams within maximum security walls. At the same time, ‘troublesome’ prisoners can be kept in line with the use of ‘chemical coshes’ — psychotropic drugs — along with plain old brute force and torture.

All it takes to function in this way is the complicity, along with considerable active involvement, of prison staff and the willingness of political masters to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to goings-on. However, such blindness and deafness has, invariably, to be expensively bought.

That such abuses (but not the multi-million dollar scams) were known about for years is now glaringly obvious. The information was published a decade ago in newspapers and in a book titled The Misery Merchants by journalist Ruth Hopkins.

So where were the unions? Having protested vociferously in 1999 and having occasionally raised an objection or two, what has the union movement — and Popcru in particular — done since then?

I asked the same question, but about decaying hospital infrastructure, of the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union in my last column — and was castigated for it by unionists both within and outside Nehawu. They pointed out that the union had conducted research and had protested about poor conditions. Indeed it had, according to my records, ten, 15 and up to 20 years ago.

That was when Popcru was also protesting and promising a recruiting drive in the new, privately run prisons. In the wake of the Mangaung escape, the union reacted ‘with shock [to] emerging revelations relating to the escape of an inmate’. Popcru laid the blame at the door of the Department of Correctional Services and called for action, while also demanding that all staff at Mangaung Prison be made permanent employees.

At the same time, the prisons union was also continuing to campaign alongside Nehawu about the lost pay battles of 2018 and last year. And, like so much of an increasingly fractured labour movement, the union has not condemned the tactical idiocy of Nehawu in punishing working class patients and staff by targeting public hospitals in a pay dispute with government.

Perhaps this comes down to an expression said to have been coined by Mao ze Dong of China: ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ It is an instruction simplistically taken up by sections of the self-styled Left, both within and outside the labour movement, frequently to their detriment.

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