Manuel vs. labour

2009-09-24 00:00

SPARE a thought for Trevor Manuel. It seems like the only face-time the new Minister of Planning can get in the media these days is when he’s attacked by Cosatu. His various documents, press releases and green papers would hardly get any attention otherwise.

The trade union federation last week launched a scathing attack on Manuel, accusing him of accumulating too much power. Cosatu actually went so far as to warn that if Manuel’s plans came to fruition, he would become SA’s de facto “imperial prime minister”. A big part of Cosatu’s beef was that Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel’s mandate is “being negated” by Manuel’s plans.

Cosatu’s warnings were contained in a political report to be presented at the union federation’s 10th national congress this week. The congress had hardly started when there was a veiled attack on Manuel for encouraging businesses (”capitalists”) earlier this year to take a stand against labour when necessary.

For anyone following what’s been coming out of Manuel’s office, Cosatu’s attack seems misplaced. If anything, Manuel has been given a kind of non- job. He has to co-ordinate plans to come up with a 15-year plan and every five years issue a Medium-Term Strategic Framework. A whole lot of waffle.

The first five-year framework to come from Manuel’s office was a hodge-podge of ideas and plans, often contradictory and clearly the work of a “committee” of writers with disparate ideas. It bore none of the old Manuel hallmarks of sharp, clear thinking and no-nonsense focus on the core issues. It was, in fact, designed to please all of the people all of the time — and this could surely not have gone unnoticed by one of the key parties it was designed to please: Cosatu.

There’s a beautiful example of the contradictory ideas contained in this framework document in one of the area­s dealing with fiscal policy. The document manages to promise both a slow- down in government spending increases and the maintenance of the current rate of increase. Now, either you slow down the rate of increase or you maintain it, but you can’t do both.

The document says: “As a result of the global economic crisis, growth in public spending is likely to slow for the next two to three years. This will require some tough choices and serious trade-offs. In principle, government has decided that, in the early years of the mandate period, it will maintain the steady increase in expenditure, especially in areas that will protect society from ... the downturn ...”

The Green Paper that Manuel released recently is a boring tome on how everyone and his cousin will be consulted on drawing up a 15-year plan and the five-year frameworks. It’s all about processes and not about specific plans.

According to the Green Paper, there will be a commission, drawn from outside experts, that will give input into the government’s plans. Here, one can anticipate some drama in future. Which experts will please the left, the centre and those keen on employment equity? But since no one is named as yet, this can’t be the source of Cosatu’s deep unhappiness with Manuel.

Still, dig a little deeper into the Green Paper and there’s a lightbulb moment that could explain Cosatu’s disgust. The Green Paper says the Planning Minister will lead the interaction between the various bodies that will be consulted for input into the plans. This includes the tripartite negotiating body, Nedlac (the National Economic Development and Labour Council), and various sector forums.

What it boils down to, is that Manuel will be the face of the government that Cosatu has to deal with if it wants input into plans. Clearly, the unions would prefer Patel.

It’s been emphasised that the Green Paper is a discussion document, so nothing is written in stone — and Cosatu has certainly made its response to the discussion document known. This may sound odd, but the unions are right in that Manuel isn’t the right man to be the cabinet’s contact person with them. His history with Cosatu is fraught with antagonism.

The Green Paper should be changed so that the Minister for Economic Development becomes the contact person with the unions for input into the plans.

This doesn’t mean that the unions’ input will necessarily make its way unchanged into final plans. It just means that there will be more give and take instead of combat. In building relationships with unions, it’s often not so much what is said, but who is saying it and how.

There’s a reason why Patel is in government, and Manuel needs to recognise this. At the same time, Patel needs to recognise that he’s no longer a trade unionist and that his new job comes with big responsibilities. —

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