Our economic woes are so great, and anger over them so palpable at the moment, that there is a tendency to hark back to the past. We look to our successes, the things that worked for us back when our collective back was against the wall. So it’s completely understandable to have so many calls for an “Economic Codesa”, a grand meeting where we can all come together, sit around the table and talk, work on solving the nation’s problems, and you know, make a difference. The problem is, there are very few political scenarios in which that could happen. But, there is some cause for hope. Even from someone as grumpy as STEPHEN GROOTES is this week.
It’s really very simple. At the moment the ANC is in the pound seats. When it comes to economic policy, everyone else can rail against the Luthuli House machine as much as they like, they are not going to win. The ANC’s national executive committee is not going to give up its veto on economic policy to some kind of unpredictable gathering. So while many of the suggestions from the DA, the SA Institute of Race Relations and everywhere else are laudable, it seems like they’re just not going to happen. The tensions are simply too high in the Alliance at the moment. And we all know that both President Jacob Zuma and his deputy, Kgalema ‘Keyser Soze‘ Motlanthe will need Cosatu’s support at Mangaung. And thus, we’re not expecting any movement whatsoever.
However, there is one way in which it could happen. If the situation were to be seen to get worse, a cleverly spun President (Mac, are you listening?) could decide that the way to fix the problem, but to not get blamed for anything, would be to kick it into touch. And kick far. And that kick could perhaps involve some kind of gathering. And if the gathering comes up with something, cool. If you don’t like it, hey, you’re still the man in charge, so ditch it at the last moment.
In the final analysis though, it would seem that there’s just no way such a thing as an Economic Codesa would happen, even though Cosatu says it would welcome such a move. Talk about confidence. It shows real power to welcome something that could threaten “decent work”. But that’s also because Zwelinzima Vavi knows how dangerous the current situation is. It’s tempting here to suggest a look at the Irish example, where the unions, after some serious jaw-jawing decided they would stop the war-warring of striking. It was about trust, and undertakings. It transformed the country from being the “sick man of Europe” into the Celtic Tiger. But they didn’t have our history, which really matters. But the point is, it can be done, if only there is some residual trust with our lot of leaders at the moment.
So that’s all pretty gloomy then. But there is a ray of light. It comes in the form of Dennis George, the general-secretary of the professional’s trade union federation Fedusa. It’s the second biggest set of unions, after Cosatu. George is one of those figures who spends a lot of time on the periphery, but is by no means an outsider. His organisation is not politically aligned. But it has the heft to get the odd president or minister to come and speak at any of its functions. It also means that he’s involved in talks around business, government and labour.
George is not a fan of the idea of an Economic Codesa. For him, it’s just another talk shop. It’s a different view to Cosatu, but completely understandable. For him, the bigger the gathering, his negotiating power will be smaller. Cosatu is in a different position. But George may also be onto something when he says that smaller meetings will work out better. To misquote Bismark, it’s a good thing that men don’t see how sausages and economic policy are made.
The point about the original political Codesa was that everyone had to compromise. Some of those were big, some of them were small. Some of them don’t matter now, and some still do. For several unions and the ANC Youth League, for example, the property clause in the Constitution was a major compromise that should not have been made. For people like Gwede Mantashe and Ngoako Ramatlhodi, perhaps the clauses around the power of judges was a bit much. In an Economic Codesa, there would be massive fights about who had to compromise what.
And we all know that business simply doesn’t have the numbers to compete. They would like boring fiscal conservatism, inflation targeting, a disciplined approach with low wages and stable policy, proper property clauses and very real undertakings about who owns what. Particularly around mining. Labour (well, Cosatu) would like low interest rates, “decent work”, and possibly centralised command and some nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. Somewhere in the middle, you have the muddle that we have to live with now. But labour is the one with a whip in hand because of its role in the Alliance. So the only way that you’re going to sort out the economy in a way that will actually work (by the way, you do know that you have in your hands a proudly capitalist tablet newspaper) is by business winning more than it would through a show of hands in any Economic Codesa. This is one of those things that simply cannot happen in the glare of the media spotlight – as much as it pains us to say this.
Having said all of that, it does seem that some of this is happening. We tend to ignore things that are boring, that are held away from the microphones and that involve this meeting and that gathering of people who call themselves leaders. But there is communication. George says there are meetings underway with the blessing of Zuma. There is the seed of something happening. These are going to be long hard conversations. There will be give and take. The South African passion for consensus means it will take a long time. And the nature of some of the taking and the giving is so fragile that the negotiations will have to be done behind closed doors.
We’re not great fans of closing the doors on anything. Hell, I personally have spent enough of my life waiting outside with bodyguards to feel physically ill at the mere thought of it. But sometimes, it’s the only way.
And that hard and difficult slog behind those closed doors better bring the sides closer together. For every successful economy, for every grand national agreement about where the country should go, there has to be trust and understanding between the major players. That trust more or less does not exist in South Africa and even the chance of it becoming reality will soon be extinguished in the face of a soon-to-come populist attack. There’s truly no time to waste. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.
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