Over the two weeks after the DA announced its intention to march on Cosatu House to register its dissatisfaction with its inhabitants’ opposition to the government’s youth wage subsidy scheme, statements from Cosatu’s leaders were combative, antagonistic and militant. Members and supporters were encouraged to “occupy and swamp the streets” while others called the DA’s march a declaration of “a class war”.
So, when we witnessed the violence that ensued as the DA’s supporters met with Cosatu cadres, what had been billed as a “showdown” became a mere inevitability.
Since its inception, Cosatu has been the fiercest protector of the rights of the poor and working classes. It has rightfully earned the title of the “vanguard of the working masses” and has no rival in this arena. With a total membership of over two million members and 13 affiliates, it has become a formidable financial and political force over the years.
However, recently Cosatu generated a lot of talk when it was revealed that the very offices to which the DA was to march had been renovated for a whopping R50- million. Cosatu controls major shares in massive investment portfolios domestically and internationally. It was also revealed through what many believe was a malicious ANC leak in a Cosatu vs. ANC spat over the e-tolling saga that Cosatu, which has been at the forefront of the continuing fight against e-tolling, owns shares in a company that was involved in questionable deals during the construction of the controversial Gauteng highways.
Many have questioned the luxurious conditions in which Cosatu leaders “survive” with salaries compatible to those of private sector executives, and homes and cars to match. Perhaps it is precisely this esteemed position as “the undisputed champion of worker issues” and untold financial success that has plunged Cosatu into an identity crisis, one that has highlighted its ambivalence to the plight of the unemployed.
As far as the formations of the tripartite alliance go, Cosatu has enjoyed the greatest legitimacy and has therefore been seen as the final frontier of the alliance’s credibility. Cosatu’s vocal opposition to a number of government initiatives deemed to be “anti-worker” has given the trade union federation a level of believability its partners in government no longer readily enjoy.
The e-tolling saga, the labour broking issue and the Protection of State Information Bill are the most prominent of these and, until 15 May 2012, Cosatu held a favourable position in the minds of many who have lost confidence in the alliance. The dubious anomalies which many were willing to ignore until this unfortunate incident will now take centrestage in the assessment of Cosatu by some of its most loyal historical supporters. A small but significant crack in the federation’s formidable armour of popularity has appeared as a result of its undemocratic behaviour at this march, especially among those who would have blindly followed its lead previously.
I was in Mamelodi, a township east of Pretoria, when the much-anticipated march began to be televised. What I witnessed may help illustrate what I regard to be a small but very significant change in popular sentiment as people on the ground begin to really think about issues and are not merely moved by historical ideologies. Cosatu would do well to heed this warning.
I had stepped into a spaza-shop to buy a rather elaborate sandwich called “spatlo”, made up of the most delicious fillings of all manner of meats and pickles, an authentic “Mamelodi burger”. As I paid for my “spatlo”, a number of young guys aged about 20 to 25 were also enjoying their ”spatlos” in conversation about the DA’s march to Cosatu-house.
Their conversation was characterised by the usual Malema-isms one is most likely to encounter in most black townships when youngsters speak of the DA. You know, the DA’s whiteness, the few black tokens and their irrelevance, etc. As the march got underway and it became apparent as we watched that the DA’s supporters in the march were mostly black, and that the march had been relatively well attended, I asked if I could watch the unfolding event with them on television. They agreed and I joined them.
The silence was palpable as we all tried to make sense of what was unfolding before our eyes. As we listened to the commentator on television, who was explaining the purpose of the march, I heard one of the young men ask his friend a question, cheeks swollen as he chewed and spoke at the same time, the frown on his face betraying his confusion.
“So tell me” he said, “these DA people are marching against Cosatu in support of an ANC government policy?” His friend nodded, also chewing on his “spatlo” but completely absorbed by the television, unaware of the import and irony of his friend’s question. Dissatisfied with this response and needing more clarity he turned to his other friend with a little agitation in his voice.
“Excuse me guys!” he demanded, “are you saying the DA and the ANC are in agreement here and Cosatu is in disagreement with the ANC?”
The shopkeeper, who had been listening to this conversation while watching, said: “The government wants to give employers money so that they will be able to employ and pay people like you who are unemployed, but Cosatu is against this because this will make people get very little salaries or not as much as what Cosatu believes they should get.”
With disbelief at what the shopkeeper was saying, the young man said: “Eish man, I’m willing to work for almost anything so that I can support my girlfriend and our baby if the government wants to help companies to help employ us.
Why is Cosatu against this? Do they not care about us?”
A full conversation had started about the pros and cons of the youth wage subsidy when another patron said: “Agh, the white companies will just take that subsidy money for themselves, and you know how greedy they are. That is why Cosatu is against this thing.”
The shopkeeper said: “This subsidy is not just meant for white employers but also for those of us who own small businesses in black areas such as here. If government can help me with this subsidy, perhaps I could grow my business and employ two more people permanently. Stop thinking that the only people who can employ are white people.”
Pandemonium had broken out in Jorrissen Street, Johannesburg, as stones were being hurled from red to blue and from blue to red. Whistling and screaming and swearing rang out in the spaza shop as people got excited. My young friend sat there motionless, his cheeks still swollen with unchewed “spatlo” as he grappled with what he had just seen and heard. He seemed mesmerised and oblivious of the events unfolding in the spaza shop and the TV.
The shopkeeper then ordered us all out of his shop, afraid that the excitement generated may spill over into what had grown to be a sizeable crowd in his small shop. As we walked out I heard the confused young man ask: “When are our leaders going to start thinking about us and stop using people for their own ulterior motives?”
Indeed, the debate on the youth wage subsidy is far more sophisticated than the Mamelodi spaza shop conversation. However, the conversation has begun albeit only in the minds of people on the ground. It is the cheek of a small party such as the DA to take on a giant like Cosatu at its own game in its own territory and stare them down, which provides us with the opportunity to question the rules of the game.
It is the challenging of established notions of a monopoly on marching that will deepen democracy by providing people with living analogies, which will make people think more responsibly about the world we live in. DM