The battle for the electoral support of the millions of unemployed, unskilled and mostly ill-educated youth in South Africa — perhaps the most crucial voting bloc for the 2014 elections — is now in the open. It came with the decision by the Democratic Alliance (DA) to march on the headquarters of the country’s largest labour federation, Cosatu, and in the reaction to this by some Cosatu unions and various allies.
Cosatu correctly maintained that the march, to present a memorandum of protest about union opposition to a youth wage subsidy, was opportunistic and provocative. Commentators such as Professor Steven Friedman and Pallo Jordan, an executive member of the governing African National Congress (ANC)nagree.
But while the decision to march and the march itself was certainly — and probably deliberately — provocative, it was a perfectly legitimate exercise by a political party in a parliamentary democracy. It was a stunt carried out in the hope that it would trigger a reaction that would damage the country’s largest labour federation, highlight the confusions and contradictions that persist in the “broad church” of the governing alliance, and enhance the electoral chances of the DA.
In the days leading up to the march it was obvious that some Cosatu unions, with the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) to the forefront, planned a confrontation, with calls to “swamp the streets” and confront “the enemy”. So the DA leaders who led the march were well aware that they would face a hostile reception.
They were not disappointed. But many in the labour movement have been: they realise that the reaction to the DA march amounted to a major tactical blunder.
It matters not who threw the first rock in what turned into a violent clash: Cosatu is now widely portrayed as intolerant and in contempt of those cardinal principles of the labour movement, the right of assembly and the right of protest. And, just as importantly, in contempt of the constitutional rights of all citizens.
In the days leading up the the march, one veteran trade unionist remarked: “What on earth is the DA doing marching on Cosatu?” It was a point made at the same time by Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, who pointed out that the wage subsidy issue was a matter of government policy; that the government should be the target.
Having acknowledged this, logic demanded that the union hotheads be reined in and the DA march largely ignored. The memorandum could have been received at Cosatu House by a minor official who could have noted that it would be forwarded to government, as the correct recipient. Such suggestions were made, but ignored.
Instead, the rhetoric was ratcheted up as Numsa, the ANC Youth League, the SA Communist Party (SACP) and other allies seemed intent on outdoing one another in the use of tub-thumping and jargon-laden language. Clear facts and cogent analysis about a youth wage subsidy became buried beneath a torrent of emotional verbiage, distorted fact and misinformation.
This too was aimed at that vast and increasingly angry youth bloc. The hastily assembled anti-march alliance presented itself as the true, radical face of a revolutionary and “pro-poor” ANC, battling against the “forces of imperialism”.
This was the self-proclaimed “left” of the ANC continuing its rearguard battle to draw the governing alliance into adopting an undefined “socialist path” in support of an ill-defined “national democratic revolution”.
Much was made of the fact that the DA was formed by an alliance between the Democratic Party and the National Party. What the detractors failed to mention was that this same “party of apartheid”, the NP, subsequently left the DA and collapsed into the ANC; that its leader, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, is now minister of tourism.
An impression was also created in calls to oppose the “racist and fascist” DA, that the opposition party was not only in support of, but initiated, the youth wage subsidy proposal. Yet it was first tabled last year by finance minister Pravin Gordhan and is supported by a government that includes in its Cabinet the general secretary of the SACP.
However, the misinformation did not only emanate from one side. In the first place, opposition to the subsidy in the tripartite National Economic and Development Council (Nedlac) at which representatives of government business and labour debate proposed government policies, comes not only from Cosatu, but from the labour caucus. Along with Cosatu, this grouping comprises the Federation of Unions of SA and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).
And labour has not simply opposed the subsidy proposal. One suggestion is that “structured education” be put in place to provide adequate skills training in areas where jobs are available and not to “throw money at the problem” with a wage subsidy.
Sections of the media must also bear part of the blame for reports on Wednesday that President Jacob Zuma had admitted that Cosatu was the stumbling block in the implementation of a youth wage subsidy. Had such a statement been true, it would have justified the DA’s decision to march on Cosatu House.
But Zuma said no such thing; DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko interpreted a written response from Zuma in that manner. What Zuma actually wrote was that the discussions about the subsidy had started in May last year and were still continuing.
His words were: “Social partners continue to discuss the youth employment incentive at Nedlac. As such, final proposals have yet to be made to Cabinet.”
As Nactu general secretary Manene Samela sees it, the whole wage subsidy issue has more to do with the 2014 elections than with any serious attempt to deal with youth unemployment. The subsidy proposal, he says, has the effect of holding out the “false promise” of jobs to a vital sector of the electorate who are unemployed and who may become even more angry should their expectatiuons be raised and then dashed.
The comment brought to mind the warning issued in Cape Town last week by former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson. He noted that a threat to South Africa’s much lauded egalitarian constitution exists: it comes not from politicians and their pronouncements, but from the inability to deal with mass unemployment, poverty and corruption.