Inside labour: Don’t get distracted from the nation’s state

2015-02-10 10:00

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The state of the nation/the freedom of the land/Shall be judged by the vote of man.”

That’s a line from a popular freedom song of the early 1960s. It expressed the naive belief that once universal suffrage – votes for all – arrived, we, the majority of South Africans, would be free and determine the state of our nation.

It certainly hasn’t panned out that way.

As many within the labour movement see it, a racially exclusive parliamentary democracy simply gave way to one where power no longer relies on pigmentation.

And for all the protestations of democracy, there is little evidence the majority will prevail, even within the ranks of the governing alliance.

Labour federation Cosatu is, after all, still the numerically largest alliance member and, if democracy means the majority rules, then the policies of Cosatu should be those adopted by the alliance.

That is definitely not the case, and so we have the current tensions and ruptures within the country’s largest trade union federation.

Everything – from opposition to e-tolls and the youth wage subsidy, to calls to ban labour brokers and place the policy stress on redistribution before growth – has gone by the board.

Against this background the state of the nation speech for the majority of South Africans is not a good story to tell.

Yet, invariably, the basis of these speeches in Parliament is: we are doing well; perhaps we could do better, but give us time and your support.

There is also usually blame levelled at historic situations and unavoidable circumstances – never anything that involves the current administration in the incompetence, cronyism or corruption that may be widely attributed to it.

And, being quite predictable, any state of the nation speech is generally not expected to match the sports channels for viewer ratings.

This year is different.

In probably record numbers, we will be glued to our television sets and radios when President Jacob Zuma steps up to the parliamentary podium to deliver his 2015 speech.

However, we will do so in the hope – even the expectation – of a spectacle.

Will there be chants of “pay back the money”?

Will the Economic Freedom Fighters wear their hard hats?

Will the riot police be called? Will the president dismiss accusations of involvement in the Nkandla residence spending?

Will Zuma mention the use of the Waterkloof military air base by his friends in business, the Guptas?

Some, all, or none of these may eventuate.

But there will probably be mention of the “good story” of millions of social welfare grants.

This will make a damp squib of the 2015 speech, depriving the bulk of the citizenry of a circus – and leaving them free to continue hunting for whatever daily bread they can find and afford.

In such circumstances, the media and pundits will also return to the Nkandla and Guptagate issues.

They will be right to do so – but must not neglect the reality facing the poor majority of citizens.

Here, so much more than money is at stake.

Lives and human potential are being wasted because of the rising cost of basic necessities, adequate food, transport, school fees and electricity. Let’s not forget the need for jobs, sanitation and water services.

This is the state of the nation for 25 million or more South Africans.

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