How trade unions reacted to the Sona

Much point-scoring with the one good proposal lost in the noise

Logo of Fedusa

Cosatu’s rival trade union federation, Fedusa, has a good proposal following the State of the Nation Address, writes Terry Bell.

By Terry Bell

22 February 2016

We have now had time to digest the latest State of the Nation Address (Sona). Although digest seems hardly the right word, given how little substance there was in the speech: it was extremely lean in terms of content.

Not that this was the view of the Alliance faithful. They still rallied dutifully to pronounce, with a few reservations, that President Jacob Zuma was “on the right track”, albeit taking his time in the process. Cosatu, for example, welcomed the “broad thrusts” of the speech that, the federation noted, “highlighted many important steps towards lifting the nation out of its economic crisis and placing it on the correct path”.

Such steps, usually from a very low and previously undermined base, were also applauded this week by industries minister Rob Davies during the debate on the Sona. Like Cosatu, he hailed measures “to support industrialisation, manufacturing and export promotion, and to grow the textile, leather, automotive sector industries”. But there was no mention of the overall loss of jobs.

The Communist Party kindergarten, the Young Communist League, went even further. Revealing a remarkably slender grasp of reality, the YCL announced that the country was “on the right track despite a bleak picture about the state of the nation painted in public by the neo-liberal media and its apologists”.

But the “bleak picture” is made up of an officially acknowledged 25%-plus unemployment rate where widespread hunger is the norm and where the majority of families live below any designated poverty line. Much of this is not, unfortunately, very widely reported in the media.

Nailing their colours — and probably those of their parent body, the SACP — firmly to the ANC mast, the YCL went on the declare: “We are more than convinced that no other administration can fulfil the hopes and dreams of all South Africans other than the current one.”

Not unexpectedly, this position was totally opposed by the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), once the largest — and now expelled — affiliate of Cosatu. Numsa announced that it was “appalled” by the Sona, that, according to the union, revealed a government that had “lost all grasp of the deep problems facing the overwhelming majority of South African people”.

Most of this amounted to political points scoring; of shots fired in the looming electoral battles later this year and in 2019. And the Numsa statement made this abundantly clear in noting that the union’s position was “to move with urgency to establish a new democratic workers’ party, which will stand for the complete socialist transformation of society”.

This, of course, is the same goal apparently aimed at by the leaders of Cosatu, many of whom share leadership positions in the SACP that claims to be the workers’ party. The problem here is that there seems to exist no clear definition of what is meant by socialism.

Perhaps, as one veteran trade unionist remarked: “It’s simply a battle between a hostile band of Stalinist brothers.” This in reference to the fact that the leading polemicists in the SACP, Cosatu and Numsa all share the same political pedigree and appear still to look to what existed in the former Soviet Union as “socialism”.

Lost in all this fiery rhetoric is a practical proposal from the Federation of Unions (Fedusa) that, in these economically parlous times, government should start by cutting costs at the top by radically reducing the grossly bloated cabinet. While Germany, for example, has a head of state, Angela Merkel, and 15 cabinet ministers, we have a president, deputy president, 35 ministers and 35 deputy ministers.

The total cost, in salaries alone — there are also substantial perks that include medical aid, free and subsidised housing, transport, cars and other allowances — is more than R160 million a year. Fedusa has proposed that a cabinet for South Africa should comprise just ten ministers and that there should be a 25% pay cut at that level. Such savings should be plowed into education, health and public transport.

However, all the federations and the unaffiliated unions are united in calling for “decent work for all”. But they, like the government and opposition parties, seem long on rhetoric and somewhat short on realistic plans that take cognisance of the world of the 21st Century.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.