Charlie Harper, the character played by Charlie Sheen in the irreverent sitcom Two and a Half Men, once taunted his brother Alan with an analogy that quite accurately describes Cosatu’s failure to understand its current relationship with the ANC.
Charlie: You’re like an Alzheimer’s patient in a whorehouse.
Alan: What do you mean?
Charlie: You’re constantly surprised that you’re getting screwed, and you don’t want to pay for it.
The leadership of Cosatu is desperate to believe that it an essential part of the alliance and not just the delivery vehicle for a mass of working class voters. While they may not have memory loss related with Alzheimer’s, they prefer not to think about just how much their policy positions and demands are snubbed by the ANC. And they live in constant hope that if they hang in there long enough and keep repeating their demands, the ANC will be pushed into a miraculous change of heart on fundamental issues.
Reading out a 1,633-word statement in support of the ANC manifesto, Cosatu acting general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali said the federation believed the election document builds on progress made in the past 20 years and introduces key commitments which the organisation agreed with.
These include the undertaking that the state will procure 75% of its goods locally, strengthening the enforcement of the Employment Equity Act and speeding up the roll-out of a massive economic and social infrastructure programme.
“We strongly believe that such progressive interventions will improve the lives of many people and build a prosperous and inclusive economy and, most importantly, decrease the unemployment rate,” Ntshalintshali said.
As part of its acknowledgement that the manifesto is “not perfect”, Cosatu has conceded some of the issues which remain contrary to their own positions. This is despite the alliance political council, comprised of senior leaders of all the alliance partners, meeting ahead of the manifesto launch to work out their differences. But Cosatu, it would seem, still ended up with the short end of the stick.
While Cosatu remains opposed to significant sections of the National Development Plan (NDP) on economic and labour policy, the ANC manifesto leans heavily on the plan. At a business breakfast briefing hosted by The New Age on Monday, President Jacob Zuma said the ANC had adopted “a good plan”. “There is sufficient consensus on the Plan. It is supported by an overwhelming majority of stakeholders,” Zuma said.
Probed on Cosatu’s continued opposition to the NDP, Zuma said the labour federation could not “overstretch” its role in the alliance and the ANC could not “co-govern” with Cosatu. It sounded like a statement putting Cosatu in its place. Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini does not, however, perceive this as a snub from the president. He says Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki had expressed similar sentiments when they were president, so it was not extraordinary.
The Cosatu leadership said they welcomed reassurances from the ANC that the NDP was a “living document” which could be adapted. “Cosatu agrees that there is a need, where appropriate, for a redrafting of these economic and labour policy sections of the NDP which place far too much reliance on the capitalist free market to create jobs.”
This process of “adapting” the NDP to iron out their differences is supposed to be done through a task team appointed at the alliance summit last August. According to Dlamini, however, this task team has met only once since then. “It has not done its work,” he said. So despite the ANC brushing them off on the NDP and not even bothering to attend these meetings, Cosatu remains optimistic that the NDP will be altered according to their wishes, sometime in the future. (You see why the Charlie Harper quote is relevant?)
Similarly, Cosatu is trying to camouflage the fact that it was royally snubbed on the youth wage subsidy, which has now been passed into law despite its opposition. And the manifesto punts the use of youth wage incentives as a key platform for job creation for young people.
“We strongly believe that any form of youth wage incentives will further cement the exploitation of young workers and will lead to the displacement of older workers,” Cosatu said in its statement. “Despite the assurance that the ANC has given us that workers will be protected against displacement, we believe that no employer would admit the real reason for dismissing an employee and would possibly make allegations of misconduct or poor performance.”
Cosatu has now undertaken to participate in the grafting of new regulations to protect unsubsidised workers and is hopeful that the ANC will live up to its undertaking to review the Act in two years. So for the next 24 months, this debate is effectively closed.
The other issue which exposes Cosatu’s untenable position is e-tolling. The federation says it “deeply regrets” that there is no pledge from the ANC to scrap e-tolls. With government digging in its heels, it is bizarre that Cosatu still expected a reversal. The federation said e-tolling was “a grossly unfair and inefficient way of forcing people to pay for what should be a basic public service and we continue to engage with our alliance partners and the campaign to end e-tolls”.
During the press conference, Dlamini also conceded that nationalisation of mineral resources remained a policy of Cosatu despite it being abandoned by the ANC at its Mangaung national conference. He said Cosatu would continue to campaign for nationalisation in line with its congress resolutions for radical economic transformation.
In this litany of disappointments and rebuffs, there is one thing in the manifesto that looks like a concession to Cosatu. The manifesto says the ANC will “investigate the modalities of a national minimum wage” – something which Cosatu has campaigned hard for. But the wording does not give the impression that this is high priority. It is not clear who exactly would “investigate the modalities” and how long this would take. It looks destined to be procrastinated over for years to come. Cosatu cannot be oblivious to the fact that the ANC simply threw it a bone.
Despite all this, Cosatu has called on its affiliates to campaign for the ANC “and pledge to work tirelessly, walking the length and breadth of this country, in order to persuade all our members to vote for the ANC and ensure a decisive victory”.
Metalworkers’ union Numsa has already resolved not to do so and withdraw its support for the ANC. The federation cannot do anything to force its affiliates to comply. However, Cosatu has asked Numsa for a meeting to work out their differences. Dlamini says they want to make the Numsa leaders “acknowledge and appreciate the difficulties posed by their congress decisions”. If the meeting fails to bridge agreement, they might have to campaign for the ANC without Numsa.
While the current Cosatu leadership believes that it has a healthy, non-confrontational relationship with the ANC, it is clear that the ruling party is happy to exploit a compliant federation’s membership and campaigning capacity while leaving it dangling on its key positions. There is nothing solid that Cosatu can claim it wrestled out of the ANC that benefits it members. The one person in its ranks who had the ability to make the ANC take Cosatu more seriously is now facing nine charges in his internal disciplinary case. Zwelinzima Vavi is likely to remain demobilised for a long while yet.
Cosatu wants this flawed relationship with the ANC to continue in perpetuity but despite being in the alliance with the ruling party, they still have to take to the streets to protest government policy. A lot less crude than Charlie Harper’s analogy was Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.
The Cosatu leadership will be well advised to consider this as they campaign for five more years of going nowhere slowly. DM
Photo: Jacob Zuma and Sidumo Dlamini during the first day of COSATU’s 11th National Congress, in Midrand, September 2012. (Jordi Matas)
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