Know clearly what you want - and will fight for

| Terry Bell
Terry Bell.

That there is widespread and apparently growing cynicism within the labour movement about politics and politicians is perfectly understandable. Recent history provides many reasons, not least of them the corruption scandals, the circumstances surrounding the murder of Moss Phakoe and the ongoing school textbook crisis.

But, for the most part, these are seen merely as outgrowths of an essential corrupt and corrupting system where bitter competition and avarice is intensified by economic crisis. However, there is no clarity about what should be done.

For those who have not followed the Phakoe case — raised constantly by Cosatu since he was gunned down in 2009 — Moss Phakoe was a National Union of Metalworkers stalwart, municipal councillor and whistle blower. He tried in vain, and at the highest levels, to expose corruption in the Rustenburg region. For his pains he was shot dead on the instructions of the then mayor, by the mayor’s bodyguard.

Persistent pressure and the discovery of a “mislaid” docket finally saw former mayor Matthews Wolmarans and his bodyguard, Enoch Matshaba last month sentenced respectively to 20 years in prison and to life. It closed one chapter in what SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) has complained of as “thugs and gangsters” who have seized control of parts of local government.

But Samwu and others in the labour movement argue that this sort of behaviour is only a cruder, low-level example of what a system based on dog-eat-dog competition demands. The big-time gangsters — the godfathers of the system — for the most part sit in boardrooms, often screened by a hypocritical veil of social responsibility generated by public relations firms.

These are the people who express horror at thieving by state functionaries, but who continue to line their own pockets, often at the expense of the increasing degradation of working families. And they exist not only within the private sector.

Trade unions organising agricultural workers can produce plentiful evidence of the increased hardships faced, especially by forestry workers who are employed by both private companies and state enterprises. Thousands who once received housing and other non-cash benefits now exist as outsourced contract workers earning as little as R1 200 a month.

Faced with these realities, scepticism about politicians and their promises is to be expected. And such scepticism tends to lead to apathy, with lower turnouts at elections and increasing numbers of voters not even bothering to register to vote.

A crucial element here are the youth, those men and women between the ages of 16 and 24 where fewer than 40 per cent are gainfully employed and the others have little hope of jobs. They could be the most important voting bloc, come 2014.

So the promise of creating jobs, any jobs, even “job opportunities”, becomes a vital part of political propaganda. Take the 2010 promise by the government to create 5 million jobs by 2020. The person who painted this much improved picture of the future was economic development minister Ebrahim Patel, former general secretary of the SA Clothing and Textile Workers‘ Union.

It was all a bit vague, but the National Growth Path was promoted by President Jacob Zuma who officially declared 2011 — last year — to be a “year of job creation”. It was not. But it did again provide a lesson to politicians about the dangers of setting time-specific targets.

This was clearly a lesson the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) absorbed. When DA leader Helen Zille last week promised that her party would create 1 million jobs, she did not commit herself to any specific timetable.

But, so far as many unionists are concerned, it was obvious that Zille was singing from the same political hymn sheet as the ANC, especially when the governing party insisted that the 2020 target of job creation was “still on track”. Both parties obviously hope that such promises will win the votes of the army of the jobless.

It may be a forlorn hope. Because it can be argued that there is little to choose between the policies so far followed by the ANC and those proposed by the DA.

The adoption by the government of the of the Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy saw it dubbed the “1996 class project” by Cosatu and the SA Communist Party. At the same time, members of the opposition protested that the ANC had “stolen DA policies”.

Now, according to the SACP and Cosatu, the government is coming to accept that state intervention at a much higher level is required. But there is no clarity in the ANC position, while, say the unionists, the DA remains what it always was: the party of big business, of laissez faire economics.

The argument echoes what it was in 1996: redistribution through growth or growth through redistribution, with the stress in both cases being on economic growth. And arguments about growth are also not new.

In recent times they reached a minor crescendo in 1998, when the crisis headlined as the “Asian contagion” and the “Russian flu” struck. It was then that June Dube of the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union, warned of troubled times ahead. “The world is suffering a crisis of overproduction,” he said. Calling for greater productivity and competitiveness, amounted to “pouring oil onto a raging fire”.

At a political level, few seemed to listen. And the indecisiveness of the government has now resulted in an officially denied, but real, ABZ (Anyone But [President Jacob] Zuma) campaign. At a wider level, there also seems to be growing support for ABC (Anything But [this brand of] Capitalism).

This sort thinking has historical precedents. In a previous time of economic crisis, the “anything/anyone but” concept saw workers flock to the banner of fascism in Italy, a thuggish authoritarianism that soon morphed into the horror of Nazism.

So it is perhaps not so much a matter of being careful about what we wish for, but rather, being very clear about what we want — and are prepared to fight for.

TOPICS:  Economy

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