Inside Labour: After the Zuma tsunami

Feb 28 2014 07:31
*Terry Bell
THE “Zuma Tsunami” has run its course and left in its wake a few political casualties and no real change on the political, economic or social fronts. 

But it also encouraged an upsurge in demands for worker democracy -  and this is what lies behind the very evident trade union cracks in the ANC-led tripartite alliance that emerged last year with the suspension of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

The extent of such cracks was revealed when representatives of several Cosatu affiliated unions joined a demonstration outside parliament on Wednesday as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivered his budget speech. The unions and their allies were protesting against a range of government policies.

But this clear sign of rifts in the governing alliance was the culmination of a row that long predates the campaign to elevate Jacob Zuma to president of party and country; it is something that has been brewing within the tripartite alliance for more than 20 years.  

The beginning of what seems likely to end in a messy divorce came when the first ANC delegation to the World Economic Forum shelved the macro-economic policy document prepared by its own Macro-Economic Research Group (MERG). 

Hardly revolutionary, the MERG proposals were based on the idea that redistribution of wealth should be the prerequisite of economic growth, a concept that turned on its head the then dominant liberal theory of growth first.

The MERG researchers and the labour movement argued then - as unions still do today - that the redistribution of wealth should be the priority; that a policy based on redistribution would not only be a better, but a more equitable way forward. 

They point out that all the evidence shows that growth first, “trickle-down economics” only makes the rich richer and widens the wage and welfare gap.

But by 1994, Cosatu was committed to the idea that the ANC was “a terrain of struggle” where the forces of “socialism” in the form of the SA Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu needed to defeat the forces of capital. This “top-down” and “multi-class” approach was opposed initially by an apparently small minority within the country’s largest labour federation.

But by mid-1996, when the government finally presented its macro-economic policy, Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), the voices of doubt grew louder.

Although GEAR stressed job creation and the redistribution of wealth, it prioritised economic growth. This was fundamentally in line with the proposals of the business lobby contained in Growth for All, a document put forward in the same year.

However, the combined labour movement had also, with the aid of the MERG research, produced a comprehensive set of macro-economic proposals, Social Equity and Job Creation. It pre-dated GEAR, but there was little argument when the government’s proposals were announced. 

In the name of alliance unity, “Social Equity” went onto a back burner and GEAR was reluctantly accepted as another front on the terrain of struggle.

Less than a decade later, with growing restlessness in worker ranks, both Cosatu and the SACP were condemning GEAR as the “1996 class project”.  At the 2006 Cosatu congress Vavi. as general secretary, hailed the “Zuma tsunami” that would carry the revolution forward.

President Thabo Mbeki duly became the first high profile casualty when he was unseated as head of both the country and the ANC. Cosatu president Willie Madisha, who did not support either Zuma or Mbeki, also got his marching orders from the Cosatu executive, after a failed attempt at congress to dismiss him.

There is a distinct echo here in the events surrounding Vavi. He became increasingly outspoken against the tsunami he had previously hailed and a campaign was launched to have him unseated at the 2012 congress. It failed, because the majority of worker delegates supported him. But, in much the same way as had happened with Madisha, the executive acted against him.

However, unlike Madisha, who left and attempted to form another federation, aligned to the then newly formed Congress of the People, Vavi turned to his supporters within Cosatu. And they called for a special congress to either ratify or overturn the executive decision.

However, Vavi is only a symbol of much wider dissatisfaction. This was summed up last week in a Food and Allied Workers’ Union statement that workers see the alliance using them as “election fodder”. They now want to “reassess the relationship” and are demanding an end to centralised control and blind loyalty.

The budget on Wednesday, especially with its provision for an effective youth wage subsidy, seems to have hardened this view.

 - Fin24

* Terry Bell is a political, economic and labour analyst. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on twitter @telbelsa.

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