The more things change, the more they stay the same, so goes the saying. That could easily characterize the events that have led to the eventual industrial action by unions whose members are on the State’s payroll, particularly those affiliated to union monolith: Congress of South African Trade Unions. After all, in the months that preceded the governing party’s 2007 elective conference in Polokwane, President Jacob G Zuma, then deputy president of the African National Congress, had the unwavering backing of many, if not all, unionists and those of a communist disposition, whose organized expression is in the form of the South African Communist Party. Zuma had been portrayed as the Left’s ’answer’ to the problems of the privatization leaning GEAR policies of the former President Thabo M Mbeki led administration, a leadership which was, ironically, endorsed by COSATU and SACP at the Mafikeng and Stellenbosch elective conferences of 1997 and 2002,respectively. The Polokwane conference was seen, at least by those who emerged victorious, as a ‘defeat’ of the business friendly section of the governing party and that space being replaced with an ‘authentic’ poor and/or working class-centric leadership.
When the Zuma led Executive was assembled it, as per Polokwane agreement, had to include advocates of those who laboured and lobbied for Zuma’s ascendancy to the Union Buildings. And so the communists deployed their General Secretary, Blade Nzimande, and his deputy, Jeremy Cronin and they were given posts as Minister of Higher Education and Deputy Minister of Transport, respectively. COSATU deployed amongst other Rob Davies and Ebrahim Patel as Ministers of Trade and Industries and the vaguely mandated and poorly resourced Economic Development, respectively. COSATU had hoped that the deploying of one of its own in Patel would afford them (Labour) much leverage in as far as influencing the direction and pace of the economic policies of the Republic. Sadly, things haven’t gone as per plan. The policies of the economy emanate from the ministry of finance as it did during the era of the virulently perceived Mbeki, so much for change. Zuma, depending on the audience he was addressing, would always be careful not to make statements that would not ‘sit well’ with the audience. For instance he would say something like there “ would be continuous change” when addressing captains of the private sector( read white) and would employ words like “transformation” when addressing African black ( Chinese are also black) organizations such as COSATU, Black Management Forum and the like. But in essence, the economic path hasn’t even altered from that of the preceding ANC led administration and these are amongst the fundamental issue that vex the latter organizations which make up the ANC led Tripartite Alliance. The members of COSATU and SACP are giving their leaderships sleepless nights about the Polokwane promises that remain largely undelivered, hence the Zuma administration has been inundated with industrial actions and ‘service delivery’ protests ever since it took up Office in May last year. At the initial phase the strikes and protests were a bit unfair because the elected administration had just taken Office but then again disempowered people aren’t concerned with technicalities of the governing party’s leadership changes, many of them have voted for the ANC since 1994 and they, fairly so, want to see changes.
There’s also an element of contradiction within the Tripartite Alliance because the likes of Nzimande have been known to criticize the very government they are part of. How authentic are those sentiments or is it just a case of play for the gallery? Another issue is that of education inspectors. As things stand they are no longer used and this is because the South African Democratic Teachers Union doesn’t want them, and because they are an affiliate of COSATU, they can persuade the education ministry not to have them brought back or else face the (likely) prospect of not being re-elected or deployed to positions of privilege during the governing party’s elective conferences. By virtue of such, we have ministers who cower from implementing progressively and necessary policies because they want to remain in the ‘good books’ of their political constituents. Would unions affiliated to COSATU go on as many industrial actions as they do if their ‘mother’ body didn’t have the kind of influence it has on the governing party? Because the strikes from the said union federation affiliates occur so frequently, it, at times, erodes public sympathy and it may be the case with the current strike especially if we take into account the number of preventable deaths that have resulted and the derailing of schooling at the most critical term of the schooling calendar. Unions must begin to hold their members to account and require that they do justice to their reciprocal employment agreement. We can’t have a situation where people just want to claim their rights of a living wage and not adequately affording others a chance at a better experience of life and of the utmost importance in that regard is a good public education and healthcare.
President Zuma has to be more decisive in his approach to issues of national concern. That he is an ‘approachable’ and is a great ‘listener’ is admirable but I’d like to think that a firmer side of the president we have yet to witness. Great leaders are usually judged on their ability to make unpopular decisions and stick by them in the interest of the greater good. As to how the governing party’s administrative expression (Cabinet) will find a way to deliver on all the promises made in Polkwane, I don’t know. All I know is that rhetoric of the Zuma administration being a ‘worker friendly’ is being put to a litmus test and it’s not faring well enough to convince the interests of the groups that require championing. Prof Shadrack Gutto put this matter in perspective when he said:“The fundamental test of whether radicalism and militancy are directed towards change that is progressive and advances the liberation of the oppressed classes – the working-class, the peasantry and the ever increasing mass of the non-productive unemployed people – is the degree to which class, gender and race/ethnicity analyses inform and guide the thinking and actions of the oppressed and their allies among the middle class.”
A City Press editorial summed it up when it said:” President Zuma can survive only if he realises that running a country is very different from to running a movement, where consensus-seeking and front-building works. When you run a country, you have to make tough decisions and stick to them. And if you make promises on the quiet, you have to keep them in the hard light of the day.” The deeds that have been unfolding during this constitutionally guaranteed industrial action will be remembered as those that led to people dying while others pursued their rights. In the quest of asserting our rights, whose rights hold more sway, those of the workers or those of the citizens dependent on public schooling and healthcare? You decide.