Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille tore into Cosatu on Tuesday. She called the federation of unions “hypocritical”, said they blocked job creation, were stuck in “1950s Britain” and only interested in power. That may be true, but was she feeling excluded from the limelight? By GREG NICOLSON.
Zille started her speech at Stellenbosch University with an “irrational statement”. “Cosatu is the main roadblock in the road to job creation and redress for millions of South Africans.” It has built itself an image as the defender of the poor. “But is this brand accurate?” she asked. “It is not.”
The DA leader described unemployment as the “root of poverty” and said it must be the government’s top focus. She said three interventions are required: a more flexible labour market, opportunities for young people, and an improved education system.
“But when you look at what is happening in the policy debates in each of these areas, you can’t escape the fact that it is Cosatu and its influence that is blocking progress. On each score Cosatu advocates policy positions (which are) precisely the opposite of what is needed for development and job creation, and precisely the opposite of what is in the best interests of poor, unemployed South Africans.”
Her three examples hold water. Collective bargaining for businesses of all sizes makes it hard for small and medium-sized enterprises – key to SA’s development – to start and grow. Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi would rather take cyanide than accept the youth wage subsidy. And Cosatu stuck by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union as it ransomed students’ education in the Eastern Cape.
Zille has a point. There were 16 million workdays lost to strikes in 2011 and another winter of discontent is looming. The South African Municipal Workers’ Union is already demanding a pay rise of 15%. But anything above Pravin Gordhan’s planned 5% raise for 2012 will blow the fiscus.
Zille’s frustration was amplified by Cosatu’s decision not to attend the upcoming Western Cape Economic Development Partnership. It’s the province’s version of an “economic Codesa”. “Bizarrely, Cosatu is the only organisation in the whole of the province that has refused to engage with the process since March 2011, when it started,” she said.
There might be another reason Zille took the wind out of Cosatu. Vavi’s got a big week ahead. He’s throwing the kitchen sink at preventing e-tolls in Gauteng and if it’s anything like Cosatu’s recent march against tolls and labour brokers, he’ll get a national platform to position the labour federation as the sole voice of the poor.
He’s also got a busy year ahead. With ANC comrades slinging mud at each other in the lead-up to Mangaung, he’s able to stand outside the tent preaching about all the little obstacles to democracy like corruption, cronyism, unemployment and inequality.
Both events give him a platform to achieve two goals that must make Zille mad enough to post a flurry of offensive tweets. Cosatu is simultaneously able to brand itself as a champion of the poor, a role the DA tries embarrassingly hard to fill, while spouting an ideology that enforces the rigid labour market.
It means unions will continue to be one of the few voices of leftist rhetoric and will continue to hold the government over a barrel when it comes to labour reform. In fact, they’ll continue to hold government over a barrel when it comes to just about anything to do with workers.
Zille’s Stellenbosch speech was well timed to loosen the screws on Cosatu’s podium. She finished by saying Vavi’s only trying to build a power-base for the ANC’s 2017 elective conference.
She then offered a cheeky ultimatum: stand for election or shut up. But Vavi’s already indicated he’ll run for another term at Cosatu and there’s no way he’s going to stay silent.
With e-tolls, labour broking and the plight of the poor, Vavi’s primed to further his position as a true outside voice of the people. This week and in the lead-up to Mangaung he’ll continue to lay the cement on Cosatu’s well-established position as the only voice of dissent within the tripartite alliance.
The DA would love to expose that position as a fallacy. If its ambitions to become a real opposition party are to come true it needs to imprint its service delivery record on the wider population.
But with Cosatu’s history and the upcoming opportunities to write its own profile, the DA’s attempts to take voters away from the messy politics of the tripartite alliance are ambitious at best. Zille’s trying to erode its power base, but to repeat the words that finished her Stellenbosch speech, “I’m not holding my breath.” DM
Photo: Helen Zille vs Zwelinzima Vav.
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