South Africa, Politics

Jay Naidoo: I would fundamentally change the electoral system

By Melanie Verwoerd 5 July 2016

Jay Naidoo, former general secretary of Cosatu, was interviewed by Melanie Verwoerd, former ANC MP and SA Ambassador to Ireland, for EWN.

(Watch the EWN interview here)

MV: You really became part of the South African political landscape as Secretary General of Cosatu. Today the organisation seems a very different organisation?

Naidoo: In 1990 we were on the brink of a racial civil war. It made enormous sense for us to connect with the ANC, build the ANC, build the SACP and also have an alliance that could anchor South Africa, because things were still very fragile. But shortly after that Cosatu leaders became alienated from its base and we ended up with a trade union movement which very much sits on the coat tails of political parties in this country. That is the very sad reality today where workers do not believe that their leaders truly represent their interests.

The leaders are more interested in political power and using the trade union movement as a conveyor belt into bigger positions whether in business or in government. There is therefore a sense of disappointment. It is the sad reality and we should prepare for the fact that out of this chaos there will come something new.

MV: Will that something new still include the tri-partite alliance?

Naidoo: I was the one who negotiated it with the ANC and SACP, but I think that the tri-partite alliance has been in the ICU since they killed the RDP in 1996. So I haven’t really seen any purpose and any benefit that has come to workers in this country because it has an alliance with political parties and with those who control government.

MV: In Mandela’s first Cabinet, you were minister responsible for the RDP. We were so delighted with that visionary document in the early 1990s. How do you think we fared in the last 22 years with achieving the goals set out in the RDP?

Naidoo: I think we abandoned the goals. The thing about the RDP was, it was a visionary document. It was the glue that held us together as a society. It presented light at the end of a tunnel and that was enormously important for ordinary people. Even if you did not get your house in your life time you knew people were getting houses, you could see visible improvements in people’s lives. Our promise and covenant to our people in 1994 was that we will deliver a better life. The absolute reality is that we did not have the capacity as a government in 1994 to do the things we wanted to do. Plus 95 cents in every rand was already committed to other expenditure. So it was going to take us time. We also made an essential error. No one in that period, including myself, in the RDP suggested that we should spend our way out of the problem, so throw money at the problems. The problems that we did not solve in 1994 remain problems today and they have grown in size. And so the anger young people feel today that the economy has still fundamentally not been restructured and that the majority of young people that come out of 12 years of education still have very few skills, no jobs and unlikely to have job in their life time, that anger has also grown.

There is an enormous amount of anger and that anger is in the context where leadership is so alienated. Unlike in our days where we were immersed amongst our people and dealing with anger and the grievances, leaders today virtually don’t go to their constituencies. And so people get angry and they think the only way to bring things to the attention of those in power, is to burn things down. So we have this cycle of violence where violence becomes a language. Not just at the bottom. It is even becoming the narrative at the top. So what we have is these explosions that take place for e.g. in our universities. Sometimes the polarisations bring back the images of the past for me. Of black and white students having battles in the middle of the night at US or a rugby field at Free State university. And these are our leaders of the future.

So I think we are in a serious state of crisis in this country. A moral crisis given the amount of corruption we have at a national level. We have a deeper political crisis and moral and corruption crisis at local level which deprives ordinary people of the most basic, fundamental constitutional rights. The right and access to water, to quality education and quality healthcare.

So we have a political crisis, we have a jobs crisis with one in three people hungry in this country, one in three people living on a social grant, one in three people unemployed. So what are we then debating in this country? Are we debating the real issues that affect this country? No! We are more interested in the political noise at the top than doing painstaking work at the grass roots level to solve the challenges of people in a new context in the 21st century. We have to redefine the meaning of work and livelihoods.

MV: You have said that you think people are focusing too much on the drama around the presidential issues. Please explain?

Naidoo: There is a huge call for the president to resign. So what happens if he resigns today? Do you think the situations for people in villages, informal settlements or young people in schools that are deprived of a proper education will change? The issues are systemic and we have to find systemic solutions to that. So for me the critical issue is education in the 21st century. What is the education that we need today? All over, the world is designed for people to go and look for jobs and in fact there are no jobs. So politicians who are promising to create millions of jobs are lying to us. In fact, the most important part of the conversation globally today is about how do we build livelihoods. What are the skills people need to develop their own livelihoods, to become entrepreneurs. What are the things that government or business, even civil society, must do to create an environment where people find the jobs that they can do?

Now we have to think, today in this country, where would those millions of jobs come from? If we take the issue of land — why I think land is so important is that land is a fundamental issue of dispossession. But it is also the foundation of citizenship. I’m working with people, who when they have land, see the land as an asset, a means to grow food, and have created livelihoods for themselves. I have seen this happening globally, millions of jobs. We have to look at what stops people in our country from becoming productive off the land. Firstly they need to have ownership of the land, but land is either owned by government or largely by white farmers. So we have to deal with the issue of land distribution. But beyond giving land to people, how do we work with people in order to understand what are the barriers that stop people from becoming productive, smallholder farmers? That is usually access to land title and finance for the building of seed banks, nurseries, irrigation and a bit of energy. Then they also need an understanding of how agriculture and nutrition go together so we can also address household security. Then, with understanding of the food value chain, that whatever they produce can also be sold in a market. So we have to ask: what is it that business can do to promote a small farmer? What is it that a white farmer can do to help the farmworkers that help build, over generations, their wealth? How would they be able to work with these farmworkers to build livelihoods around agriculture and allow them to become productive smallholder farmers? These are things we have to do.

We also have to fix up education. What is the education we require today that will create these livelihoods and people with skills that can go and make a career path for themselves? What would be the supply side measure for that? There are many things that we can do today, but do different from the way we did in the past.

MV: And so why aren’t we doing it?

Naidoo: Because in one sense we are locked into the past. Our thinking is so often dominated by ideological positions that emerges from the 19th century. Which was very important in our day, but increasingly for the young people today they are alienated by the conversation. Are you a capitalist, are you a socialist, are you a communist? Young people are not interested in that. The second part is that we live in the 21st century where the technological revolution has redefined our lives. It has redesigned the production process. We can literally replace millions of people in manual production today. There are machines already that can do the entire harvesting of the wine fields of the Western Cape. What happens to the tens of thousands of workers that will loose their jobs as a result of that? So we have to start thinking what are the skills that allow people to build their own livelihoods. We then have to focus on local economies that create self-sustaining cycles of development. For people to grow their own food, produce socially useful goods and services and create their incomes through that. So we have to change our thinking, but we are locked in the past.

Even the way we see democracy. If you look at democracy today, our whole view of the struggle for freedom was to create a democracy which will guarantee a multiparty democracy, where every person had the right to vote. Look at it today. A lot of citizens in this country say that government and state institutions are being captured. But by who? By corrupt business interest. We need to have transparency in party funding. We have to have a rethink on the accountability of Members of Parliament – not only to the party bosses, because we have a proportional list system, but to constituencies. So the whole conflict we are seeing in the country today is around people chosen to represent communities and then replaced by party bosses, which creates a new cycle of violence in this country. How do we create accountable systems?

MV: So would you change the electoral system now?

Naidoo: I would fundamentally change the electoral system. In fact I would implement what was recommended by the commission that Van Zyl Slabbert chaired at the behest of government. They proposed a hybrid between a proportional and a constituency based approach. At the end of the day the goal should be that public representatives should be accountable to constituencies and to the people, the citizens, rather than to the party bosses. And that will remove a big bone of contention where leaders are parachuted into communities by party bosses who do not have the trust or support of citizens.

MV: You were also minister of Broadcasting, Post and Telecommunications. It was a time of restructuring at the SABC and the opening of the airwaves. What do you think of what is going on in the SABC at the moment?

Naidoo: I think it is a disaster. We can’t even call the SABC a public broadcaster any more. It has been reduced back to its master’s voice, articulating the interests of those who control political power today. I think it is doing us a huge disservice. At the heart of our Constitution is the principle of freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly and of association. They have completely gutted that. I think we should be outraged by it. The SABC does not not belong to a political party. What has been happening in the SABC is a sacrilege of what we intended to do when we built a democracy and wrote into the Constitution freedom of speech. And the SABC is supposed to represent that. The fact that we have management playing the role of a censorship board within the SABC is a complete abrogation of the constitutional provisions that we put into place in 1994. We should as citizens be completely outraged by this and demand the removal of people and demand accountability not to the individuals at the management of the SABC, but to the Constitution that ultimately guides our democracy.

MV: Now, looking back, are you still optimistic?

Naidoo: I am very optimistic. I often say to people I wish I was 30 years younger. There are millions of issues that you could organise people around. So I don’t understand this notion that people feel depressed and want to go on Prozac for it. I think basically this is an organiser’s paradise in that you have leaders who shoot themselves in the foot all the time. And there are millions of issues to take up which are legitimate issues of our citizens, and you don’t get thrown into jail for making your opinions known. I think that we should return to some of those basic lessons that guided us in our fight for freedom, which is immersing yourself into communities, shutting your mouth and learn to listen to people, because often the people that are suffering have both the knowledge on why they are suffering and what the solutions are. At the end of the day it is about building the power of people who are organised and powerful enough to challenge the money power of those corrupt influences that today have the ear of those in power. What we have to do is go back to the basics, but understand that we live in a different world where information is seamless and the idea of censorship is outdated and obsolete. So I would say to young people of today, particularly the next generation, to stand up. They should find their own voice, define their own struggle and define their own future. And we can have a conversation where we share our experiences. But they absolutely have the right to demand accountability from those in power and demand those changes that will create a pathway of hope and opportunity for them.

MV: Do you think that our youth will find each other across the racial boundaries, though?

Naidoo: Well, I think in 1994 we were not very far from the precipice of a racial war. I don’t think we are there, but I do get worried about the increasing polarisation between black and white. I also get concerned about the rise of tribalism that is rearing its head in this country at the moment. We have to pay attention to that. We must also remember that the ideal of reconciliation has to come with redistribution. You cannot continue to live in a country where the wealth is predominantly owned by a minority of people or where the vast majority of people feel excluded and are excluded and are deprived of the most basic rights that democracy was supposed to guarantee them. And so to avoid that major cataclysm of conflict we have to do something that will change the reality of young people, in particular young, black, female people in our country. That is a commitment we all have to make. And it involves a sacrifice from all our sides. DM

Photo of Jay Naidoo courtesy of EWN.

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