Guest Column

Mbhazima Shilowa: Mr President, don't let the current crisis with unions go to waste

2020-03-05 06:00
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (GCIS)

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (GCIS)

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Why is it that MPs across the aisle have agreed it is time for the public sector and the government to compromise in the interest of the country, but have not made the call to slash their current salaries, writes Mbhazima Shilowa

It is now official: South Africa’s economy is in recession. The 0.5% economic growth projection of the Treasury has gone up in smoke.

This should not be a surprise.

The economy has been growing at a snail’s pace for a number of years while shedding jobs.

A number of companies especially large mines and factories were heavily impacted by power outages euphemistically called load shedding. Most large construction companies are on their knees with very few infrastructure projects by the private and public sector currently underway.

Contrary to some who pretend that this is a phenomenon that started when Cyril Ramaphosa became president, we know that this has been the case for a number of years.

Economic growth under the Zuma presidency was pedestrian with unemployment levels rising, workers being retrenched and resources systematically being syphoned away from infrastructure projects, through fraud, corruption and maladministration.

If ever there was any growth it would have been on the thieving arena.

Quibbling over 0.9% and 1.2% growth then and now is fine for statistical purposes but it's cold comfort for many who are poor, unemployed or underemployed with crime ripe as there’s no police capacity or prosecution to speak of as the police, Hawks and NPA were hollowed out.

While it is unfair to blame it all on Ramaphosa and his administration, he cannot escape culpability.

He was part of that administration from 2014 as deputy president.

He oversaw some of the processes meant to turn around state owned enterprises with very little or no results to show.

Eskom was once his forte.

We know that the other fellow put him there while aiding the feeding frenzy currently being revealed at the Zondo Commission.

But even as president he has not unveiled any bold plans to fire up the economy.

The ANC and its alliance partners can not escape culpability.

While Cosatu and the SACP made a noise, it was either too little, too late or meant for the public in order to catapult yet another candidate never based on the vision of the candidate or any tangible plans to turn the ship around and to stop the rot.

It is all water under the bridge.

We are now here.

It is worse that this happens after the elections, the public having made its choice.

Pointing out that they should have voted wisely will neither change the results nor change the economic situation we find ourselves in.

Recently the Finance Minister and the President have called on the public sector unions to agree to forego parts of the collective agreement reached two years ago at the public sector bargaining council.

While there may be merit on the need to trim public sector wages as well as the overall public debt, they are going about it the wrong way.

While it may bring about relief to the public purse and maybe keep some of the rating agencies at bay, this is not a matter for the government and the public sector unions sitting in a bargaining forum haggling over a few cents even though they are couched in billion rand terms.

What is needed is the convening of a forum that brings in the trade unions, business and the government.

They can even use Nedlac if they are minded to do so.

I am not going to quibble about the forum but its stated purpose.

Such a forum should seek to agree that we are in a crises, examine the nature of the crises and look at a package of measures that each can take to get the country out of the crises.

Countries such as Ireland, the Netherlands and Norway have used such forums to get their countries out of a mess and on a path to prosperity.

In the Netherlands, Wim Kok, a former trade unionist convened such a forum soon after he became the prime minister.

The same was done in the other countries I have mentioned.

In Norway, where the Labour Party has a similar alliance with the trade unions, they first hammered such an agreement politically before entering into negotiations with the private sector.

The outcome was the same.

They agreed on measures to grow the economy, create jobs, remuneration levels and gain sharing, slashing or freezing the salaries of senior and middle management and the public office bearers.

The private sector also committed to holding the pay packages of senior and middle management in check and to close the wage gap between the low paid workers and management.

Government and the private sector agreed to invest in social and economic infrastructure aimed at getting the economy (jump) started, to preserve and to create jobs as well as bringing school leavers and graduates into employment albeit in some instances as interns.

Key to the agreement was ensuring the sustainability of the social wage: affordable accommodation near places of work, public transport that is safe, reliable and affordable.

Savings were used to strengthen public education, health, social welfare and fighting crime and corruption.

It is my considered view that similar agreements can be reached in our country if there is political will across the board and the realisation that unless we all pull together we are not going to succeed.

There is no reason why, as part of reducing the wage bill and showing the country that he means business, the President can’t reduce his salary and that of his Cabinet, premiers, mayors and members of the respective executives and call on Parliament to do the same with public representatives, especially MPs and MPLs.

Why is it that MPs across the aisle have agreed it is time for the public sector and the government to compromise in the interest of the country, but have not made the call to slash their current salaries - perks such as free travel for them and their wives including after retirement, accommodation, car allowances and other such things.

Poor workers pay for their own accommodation and transport.

What is it with these freebies if they are serious about compromises, reducing the wage bill and the public debt?

Such a forum can discuss issues such as the ratio of police, nurses, teachers, doctors and social workers for our population and agree to progressively reach such levels.

It may be that the problem is not the wages of the aforementioned public sector workers but the layers of bureaucracy at middle and management levels.

The results may be the redeployment of some of these to frontline service areas as admin clerks instead of pushing pen and paper in offices.

The private sector pledges made in the various summits with the President could also be channeled through such a forum.

Some of these investments will rely on the ease of doing business especially the red tape associated with starting a business, reliable and safe public transport and affordable housing to own or rent with schools, hospitals, clinics and police stations nearby.

They may also use the forum to look at monetary policy including the desirability of slightly higher budget deficit levels, provided it can be shown how it will be funded and reduced to acceptable levels over an agreed period of time.

One of the weaknesses of Nedlac is the exclusion of Saftu (South African Federation of Trade Unions).

The truth is there is very little chance Cosatu will agree to Saftu getting a seat or two in Nedlac.

Such exclusion means we are likely to pay the price of Saftu standing outside of the tent pissing in with everyone getting wet and enduring the smell of urine than if they were inside the tent pissing out.

The trade union federations in Nedlac also comprise majority public sector unions.

The temptation is to focus on government and the public sector interests instead of the private sector with some of the major industrial unions notably Fawu (Food and Allied Workers Union) and Numsa (National Union of Metalworkers of SA) being outside.

There can be no social accord capable of implementation that exclude such unions unless the idea is not to have industrial peace but continuous strife.

The President and a number of members of his cabinet including the deputy president cut their teeth in the trade union movement.

Sipho Pityana, the president of BUSA (Business Unity South Africa) was not only the director general of labour when the current finance minister was there, he is also a stalwart of the trade union movement as we know it today, focusing on broader issues beyond bread and butter issues.

Sandile Zungu of the Black Business Council cut his teeth at Sarhwu (South African Railway and Harbour Workers Union).

Together with Zingiswa Losi and Zwelinzima Vavi they could, if they so wish, hammer out an agreement in the best interest of the country with everyone giving more than they would normally, to stop us from going over the cliff.

The President invested a lot of time including weekends out in Dullstroom trout fishing with Roelf Meyer to help hammer out an agreement during the Codesa and constitution negotiations.

There’s no reason why he should not invest time talking to the trade unions in the best interest of the country he leads.

The nation waits Mr President.

Don’t let the current crisis go to waste.

- Mbhazima Shilowa is a former Premier of the Gauteng Province, trade unionist and Cope leader.


Read more on:    cosatu  |  cyril ramaphosa  |  politics  |  unions  |  leadership  |  economic crisis
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