As President Jacob Zuma and his high-powered delegation flew into Davos, Switzerland this week, they left behind a brewing battle within the ranks of the governing alliance. Davos, of course, is the scene of yet another of those gatherings at which the World Economic Forum (WEF), that private club of the super rich, attempts to flatter, bribe or bully politicians to adopt policies that favour big business.
The last time Zuma attended, he reportedly described the experience as “fabulous”, much to the consternation of many in the labour movement. This time round, he is promoting the government’s New Growth Plan (NGP), a framework about which many trade unions have strong reservations.
Details of the NGP are up for debate, but there are fears in the union movement that this latest economic framework may fall victim to the “Davos effect”; an effect summed up in a myth propagated on radio on Wednesday evening by a leading market commentator. He noted that Nelson Mandela had “gone to Davos (in 1991) as a socialist and returned as a democratic capitalist”.
Not that the NGP is seen by the labour movement as socialist. That label has been attached to it by conservative economists such as Dawie Roodt.
But some unions, following the lead of SA Communist Party (SACP) deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin, are prepared accept that the NGP indicates a change of direction or, as Cronin puts it, an “implicit paradigm shift”.
Apparently supporting this position is the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu). NUM’s general secretary, Frans Baleni serves on the central committee of the SACP, while Nehawu’s Fikile Majola is a member of the party’s politburo.
However, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), whose general secretary, Irvin Jim is also an SACP member, has come out fiercely opposing the NGP. “To us the NGP does not differ fundamentally from the failed Gear (Growth Employment and Redistribution) policy,” says Numsa spokesperson Castro Ngobese “a paid-up SACP member in good standing”.
An eight-page document circulated within Numsa provides a detailed critique of the latest economic framework and ends with a warning that “a battle is looming”. It notes: “(It is) a battle about the direction which the country’s economic development should take.”
This is, in fact, the same battle that emerged in 1996 with the introduction of Gear, an outline based on the theory that economic growth would lead to redistribution. The unions argued then — and 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.
The view that there are positive aspects in the NGP and that it should be supported, is therefore seen by several critics as being akin to “saying you can be just a little bit pregnant”. It is a mistake Numsa officials admit to making in 2006 when the government introduced its Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative (Asgisa).
At the time, the union claimed that Asgisa was “a major breakthrough signalling the creation of more jobs”. The SACP also hailed the then new framework as a departure from Gear.
With hindsight, Numsa now agrees that the assessment by Stellenbosch economist Sampie Terreblanche was correct. Terreblanche labelled Asgisa, “A growth strategy to enrich the rich still further.”
So the lines are again being drawn with the NGP, only this time the divisions seem much deeper and the potential for acrimony much greater. Commenting on Cronin’s support for the NGP, a prominent SACP member claims: “The ANC is busy co-opting the SACP and many comrades are compromised. The party is in danger of becoming an amorphous mass.”
So far, the divisions have not yet emerged openly in Cosatu and, despite media reports to the contrary, Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, also an SACP member, did not “welcome the NGP”. A statement by Vavi welcomed the publication of the NGP, not the framework itself.
This is an important distinction that highlights the deep divisions on the issue that exist among major unions affiliated to Cosatu. It is also an ironic reference to the fact that Gear, unlike the NGP, was imposed without consultation.
All that Cosatu has done so far is to agree to “engage” in debates about the NGP, while making it clear that it considers the framework to be lacking in a number of respects. The federation maintains that the NGP contains the same “fault lines” as policies of the past.
For the time being, therefore, Cosatu is sitting on the fence, contemplating on which side it should eventually take a stand. Whatever the outcome, the focal point in all debates will continue to be the question of jobs and “decent” work.
As Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven points out, media reports that the unions have not defined what they mean by decent work are untrue. This form of labour was defined clearly more than three years ago when the International Trade Union Confederation staged the first annual World Decent Work Day.
Craven adds that labour and business delegates to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) also agreed that decent work means improving existing standards in every country, aiming at permanent employment, “protective” security in cases of unemployment, worker rights and an ongoing social dialogue between employers and employees.
“What we have now are minimum standards of work. Relaxing them means a move towards indecent work,” he says.
Federation of Unions (Fedusa) general secretary, Dennis George agrees. In a meeting earlier this week with ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, George stressed that the government is committed to observe agreements made at the ILO.
“The idea that we can lower standards and that any job is better than no job is just not on,” he says.
So battle lines are drawn. And, if alliance unity is to be maintained, government may have to sell a rather different version of the NGP to the unions to one that the WEF finds acceptable.