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Cosatu/DA coalition: great idea, but not too realistic

Ian Ollis is currently a candidate for the Masters of City Planning (Transportation) programme at MIT in Boston. He formerly served as a South African MP, (Shadow Transport, Labour and Education Minister). He has also worked as a city councillor in Johannesburg, briefly lectured at Wits University and ran a real estate company. He has no dogs!

There are many good reasons why the DA and Cosatu should find themselves at the same table and work together for the benefit of South Africa. And yet, there are almost as many reasons why such coalition will not work.

It has been mooted before that there would be distinct advantages to a proposed governing coalition between the Democratic Alliance and the Congress of SA Trade Unions to seize power from the ANC, provide an alternative government and force voters to think with their heads about their choices instead of voting their fears and their racial stereotypes. To put the advantage in perspective, Cosatu currently claims to have approximately 1.985 million members, Fedusa approximately 556,000 and Nactu 397,000, with the independent union, Solidarity, carrying about 197 000 members.

This idea has significant advantages, of course. It would shake the ANC to its core and force a serious re-think by the ruling party. A complacent government repeatedly re-elected has no reason to treat voters with respect and truly engage with their wishes and needs. Even the “government is listening” type engagements, public hearings and policy conferences tend to be dominated by the big guns who tell voters what is good for them by means of salting the audience with their own lackeys who will influence the crowd to give back the desired response. Unique views never reach government’s ears, because those views are drowned out by orchestrated populist responses. As Lumka Yengeni once put it to me, these public hearings are a form of group therapy, letting people talk about their pain and blow off steam. It’s not really about looking for new ideas or actually expecting the public to think for itself and give a real feedback.

To shake the nation out of its complacency requires something entirely new, entirely out of the ordinary and out of the box; enough of a change to get the majority of voters to take a step back, engage with the issues de-novo, if that is possible, and actually give their own views, unaided by a Malema or a Mugabe. The Cosatu-DA alliance would provide just such a jolt to the system. The SA Communist Party would never really get any significant voter support as it really has no sizeable constituency. It has never attempted to stand for election as an independent body. Cosatu is quite different. It is organisationally an independent body and has a measurable constituency. The DA-Cosatu Alliance could just crack the mould. The best part of it would be that race would not be a factor anymore and voters would have to consider policy and ideology.

Cope was not such choice. It was mostly ”ANC-Lite”. Most stories about Cope were about its infighting and controversial roots. Cope was not primarily about policy, but about forming a new movement that could break the  stranglehold of the ANC. It was not significantly different to the ANC and its policy platform was thin or absent. It was really another UDM/ID-type experiment, this time with more former ANC bigwigs to give it credibility and several suitcases of cash.

Not so with Cosatu. It is already a mostly independent organisation. It has its policies and an established, successful machine and identity. It is well organised right down to local level, and has at least the operational machinery to get voters out.

And in many ways Cosatu has things in common with the DA. Apart from a well-established machine to mobilise its troops, it shares a common platform on corruption, ineffective government institutions and, despite the unfriendly rhetoric, most trade unions realise they need a successful, well-run industry or there will be no jobs.

Such an alliance would split the ANC vote and end the racial voting blocks in SA. This would give the combined force the opportunity to set up a government based on principle, not one using race or reacting to racial issues in campaigning.

That is, of course, where the ideological honeymoon ends. You can’t build a coalition of partners who are far apart on key policy issues. Apart from a commitment to end corruption and a commitment to clean, lean, government, there is little in common between the DA and Cosatu.

The DA, arguably, is a combination of moderately conservative economic, definite liberal social values and a concern for the unemployed who may never get job opportunities, as well as a strong commitment to excellence in education, as a means for social upliftment combined with a strong small light-footed government committed to maintaining law and order in a very hands-on kind of way.

Cosatu, on the other hand does not focus its policy choices on mechanisms to create new jobs. I have repeatedly asked Cosatu representatives in Parliament and in workshops what they are doing to create jobs and there is never any answer other than a gasp that I should even ask such a stupid question! The DA focuses its policy on job creation via small business and reduced red-tape. Cosatu rather focuses on more pressure to force government and business to provide protection, better working conditions and higher wages for its members who currently have jobs (which, according to DA stance, is loading government and business with red tape).

This puts the two movements at loggerheads on economic policy and labour laws. How you practically agree to suspend this clear difference for a five-year period of the governing alliance is not obvious. The DA is not averse to more measures to help the unemployed who make up many of its new constituents. It is, however, concerned that South Africa is constantly giving more to those who already have rather than those who have nothing.

But there is more. One could ask the question: What’s in it for Cosatu? Currently Cosatu occupies a space very close to the seat of power, and its members often end up with senior parliamentary positions, giving them the opportunity to influence government choices now, rather than at some point in the future. Why should they break with the ruling party to join the DA, with the potential fallout of membership abandoning them as they side with the group they have been led to believe (incorrectly of course) is the “oppressor” of the past. Propaganda and scapegoating are hard to undo.

But of course the largest problem is not ideological. It’s political. Vavi’s made it clear he is aiming to become the next deputy president. His name has become synonymous with Cosatu and has effectively turned it into a political movement. While many commentators have spoken with wistful hope of the day when Cosatu “goes it alone”, what is more likely is Cosatu will be neutralised by integrating Vavi into a senior ANC leadership position. That would, in turn, facilitate the economic policy necessary to deliver SA out of the quagmire of job losses and economic downturn in which we currently find ourselves. As long as Cosatu continues to push for more protection and perks for existing workers, SA becomes less competitive and jobs are shed. The youth will find it harder and harder to find employment until business, both local and multinational, view Cosatu as less of a threat and the environment in SA easier for business. Neutralising Vavi would probably also neutralise Cosatu and effectively give the more sensible ANC policy makers an open hand to free up the economy.

So in effect the real obstacle to a DA/Cosatu alliance, apart from the obvious policy differences, will be the career aspirations of the Cosatu leadership. In fact, it’s more likely that a Fedusa/DA/Solidarity/ID kind of alliance could emerge, with the left-overs of the UDM and Cope in tow… if they survive this year’s election, that is!

And this is all just my view. Of course. DM


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