SAFTU: Confront GBV in the federation and workplaces! Fight for working class unity!

On 23 January, General Secretary of SAFTU, Zwelinzima Vavi, released a statement outlining that the National Spokesperson for the federation, Ntozakhe Douglas Mthukwane, had had his employment withdrawn after a series of background checks revealed that Mthukwane is currently on trial for three rape charges and was convicted in 1995 of attempted rape. 

We applaud SAFTU for acting swiftly in suspending and ultimately dismissing Mthukwane upon learning of this information. There are however serious problems regarding the commencement of his employment and the discovery of this information and subsequent actions taken.

As the Workers and Socialist Party we are outraged that a man charged of several cases of sexual assault, even convicted, has worked for SAFTU – a trade union federation where all workers, irrespective of gender, should feel welcome and safe. SAFTU as a fighting union federation building to overcome the very issues that divide the working class, and striving towards a society free from sexism, racism, and exploitation at work places, could have completely prevented the storm it finds itself in now.

That Mthukwane worked at the head office of SAFTU, as the voice of the federation, is particularly disturbing. The question as to how an alleged serial offender, in the wake of growing movements against Gender Based Violence (GBV), could be appointed by the leadership of a federation that claims to seriously fight against GBV should be closely examined. 

Unfortunately the statement released by SAFTU does not shed any light on how Mthukwane came to be employed when his unacceptable history is easily revealed by a google search. In the statement SAFTU also fails to indicate what further actions will be taken to prevent such lapses in judgment taking place in the future. 

The recorded number of women assaulted, raped and murdered in South Africa in 2017/2018 increased by 11% from the previous year to 36 731 cases. In 2016 the World Health Organisation reported that South Africa had the fourth highest female interpersonal violence death rate out of 183 countries listed. The appointment of Mthukwane in October 2019 came in the wake of the national outrage against these very statistics, triggered by the gruesome rape and murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana in September last year. Even in June 2019 we were inspired by the  brave strike action of the Lanxess mine workers against sexual harassment. It must be stated in no uncertain terms that the fact that Mthukwane flew under the radar of SAFTU regarding his past, in the context of mass awareness campaigns and uprisings worldwide, is a grave injustice to all victims of GBV and those of us fighting against it. 

The consequences for Mthukwane’s actions should not only end with his dismissal, he should also be brought to justice before he is able to victimise anyone else. We must however question why someone like Mthukwane is afforded bail for such serious charges as 3 separate rape allegations, after a conviction. The oldest pending case is from 2016, which is an absolute indictment on the bourgeois legal system’s inability to deal decisively with cases of sexual assault, allowing individuals with serious convictions free reign no matter the danger they pose to society. Between 2016 and today, Mthukwane has been confronted with two more charges of sexual assault. 

And the danger someone like Mthukwane poses to SAFTU is also important. If SAFTU is serious about becoming the fighting weapon for all workers and their communities in South Africa, including the growing number of precariously employed women, it must ensure that every single member and potential member feels safe from harm in the federation. The only way for SAFTU to overcome this storm is to face it head on and learn from it, which must necessarily include confronting the culture of patriarchy that permits GBV and sexual harassment that is unfortunately still a problem in the federation and her affiliates.

WASP calls on SAFTU to launch a thorough investigation into the mistaken appointment of Mthukwane. It is crucial that this investigation is conducted by committed, active members of the federation, with women at the helm. In order to prevent re-victimisation of the survivors of Mthukwane’s actions, SAFTU must take an all-encompassing, principled gender-sensitive and political approach to the matter. In addition to this we call on SAFTU to work out an internal programme to make visible and combat the full spectrum of gender oppression – from GBV, rape, sexual harassment, derogatory language, ridiculing, belittling, silencing etc – in the work place. This will assist the federation in advancing gender consciousness, which is clearly lacking in fatal ways. This programme must ensure that concrete processes are set in place to aid the membership in reporting violations against them within the federation, and that these processes are sensitive and supportive of the victims.  

Our main enemy is the capitalist class, who super-exploit women workers through low wages and insecure employment, as well as undermining the standing of women in society in other ways – through objectification and commodification of women’s bodies, unequal pay, lack of social services etc. 

In order to usher in a socialist world free from oppression, SAFTU must unapologetically be a federation that consciously fights for the liberation of society from the ills of all violence, including GBV – an integral part of class society and of the divide-and-rule through which the capitalists manage to keep the working class in fear, confusion and submission.