The way Golekane! and their allies see it, the court action and the consumer boycott are part of a multi-pronged attack. Should the court case end in a settlement—well, fabulous. But Golekane!, by design or by accident, is now part of a much wider call for economic transformation: an end to outsourcing, an end to labour brokering, and a return to the letter of the constitution’s labour legislation. And there are consolation prizes that may end up being bigger than the first: terminating any hope of a rubber-stamped union between SABMiller and AB InBev, and helping to kill off 350-years of European-based corporate exploitation gussied up in the rhetoric of civilisation and benevolence.
This approach comes with certain dangers.
A fragmented beverage market would not necessarily benefit South African workers—small firms are often just as exploitative, if not more so, than big multinationals. And from an investment perspective, the wonks in the wood-panelled equity firms already consider South Africa to be in a chaotic spiral dive. The mining sector is in disarray, the manufacturing sector is evaporating, state-owned companies like Eskom and South African Airways are the epitome of dysfunction, while government, the federated unions and the private sector—all effectively in cahoots—value short term plunder over long term gain. In this milieu, SABMiller’s leverage is the stability they provide large institutional investors like the government pension plan Public Investment Corporation (PIC), the 10,000 or so jobs they provide work-starved South Africans, the tens of millions of Rands they “invest” into “the democratic process” across the ideological spectrum, the tens of millions more they pump into sports and other social programmes, the billions they pay SARS at the end of every Q4, and the promise of comfortable board posts for celebrity politicians at the end of it all.
No question: SABMiller is important. But that hardly matters anymore. In the past several years, the country’s ideological colour wheel has spun from pinkish to deep red, and calls for genuine economic transformation have dominated the national conversation. A radical left has emerged as the most potent political voice, and they will indubitably nudge the economy toward the shoals of nationalisation. For big corporates like SABMiller, this may prove disastrous. For the man on the street—who knows?
One thing is certain: every movement needs a symbol, and former owner-drivers and their backers believe that they have one at the ready. The story is gorgeously simple: Owner-drivers like Moses Mkhondo and Thabo Tsolo were asked to resign from their jobs, promised a bump in pay, cajoled into signing absurdly unfair contracts, exploited to the bottom of their bank loans, and then allegedly terminated without cause.
ABI’s response at the point of crisis? “For the last two years we’ve been engaging with the ex-owner drivers who were not happy with being terminated,” said Tshidi Ramogase. “We’ve been meeting with them to understand what happened, why were their contracts terminated. The scheme itself has had bad publicity and we’ve had to look back and say, ‘Is it really that bad?’ And we get to the same answer all the time. It is good for us and we do see the benefit daily. Ja, maybe things can be improved. But today as we speak, we believe there’s more win for both partners than there are any big negatives.”
The owner-drivers were once ABI’s favourite public relations mascots. It appears that they’re about to reverse the narrative, and become mascots for a very different cause with a very different outcome.
There is, however, one last element to parse. Why would ABI and SABMiller send their drivers over the edge of the abyss? If every last OD in South Africa ended up swinging from his belt with a crumpled SARS bill in hand, where would the punters source their Coke Zeroes and their Castle Lites?
Mike Melnick answered this question with what appeared to be genuine bafflement. “ABI do care because they don’t want their programme to fold. If the guy runs his business so poorly that he eventually has his truck repossessed because he hasn’t been paying his VAT and SARS, they stand to compromise their delivery schedule. I don’t think anyone’s going to go into this process with the idea of, well, let’s see how these guys are going to fail. I mean that would be crazy. Why even do it in the first place?”
Yet they did do it. OD, for all its long-term bluster, was the ultimate in myopic, short-term corporate cannibalism: it hardly benefited SABMiller’s shareholders if the company they owned ended up contributing to the destruction of the South African middle class—the very consumers the company needed to maintain shareholder value? But there is a measure of sense in the madness. Andrew Levy, a South African labour relations expert and founder of Andrew Levy Employment, puts it this way: “Generally speaking, SA employers do not wish to employ. They don’t have an appetite for employment because they perceive labour law as being hostile. So any time they have a choice between [hoarding] capital and employing, they’ll go with hoarding capital.” Added the competition lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity: “It’s a three-way strategy. Crush the competition, squeeze everybody’s margins—which includes your taverners and your owner-drivers—and raise the price to the consumer as high as you can according to their willingness to pay. It’s not rocket science. But you can only do it if people have no alternatives. If there’s nothing else to distribute, drivers have got no alternatives. If there’s nothing else to sell, taverns have got no alternatives. Nobody’s going to run a shebeen filling it with Windhoek Lager.”
Oddest of all, although the OD programme provided cheap ideological calories for both the left—new black empowered entrepreneurs!—and for the right—318 fewer employees and a busted union!—it is unlikely to have saved ABI and its parent company any money. “I would imagine that it’s probably cheaper to run your own fleet and I would think that from an administrative point of view it’s far less of a burden,” said Levy. “But I don’t know that the main motivation is financial. I would think that it’s really a marginal call. The main benefit comes in the fact that you reduce what is a huge, huge, huge vulnerability—labour.”
The collage of the ideal South African village, the one Moses Mkhondo painted in the good old days, still hangs above his couch in Heidelberg. These days, Mkhondo is a Golekane! regular. It’s difficult to know whether his newfound activism squares with his built-in idealism. During a recent visit to his home, he said that he hadn’t painted since he stopped working, mostly because he couldn’t afford the materials.
If he couldn’t work, he couldn’t paint. And if he couldn’t paint, he couldn’t conceive of—and contribute to the creation of—an ideal world. Later, he sat beneath the painting and began reading out his termination letter to a room full of reporters, his wife Victoria sitting stoically beside him. He made it through two paragraphs before he started weeping. He sat with his head in his hands for a very long time.