Inside Labour: Cut the fat, feed the people

We have now had time to digest this year’s state of the nation address (Sona) – although ‘digest’ hardly seems the right word, given how little substance there was in the speech.

Not that this was the view of the alliance faithful. They still rallied dutifully to pronounce, with a few reservations, that President Jacob Zuma was “on the right track”.

Cosatu, for example, welcomed the “broad thrusts” of Sona which, the labour federation noted, “highlighted many important steps towards lifting the nation out of its economic crisis and placing it on the correct path”.

The SA Communist Party (SACP) kindergarten, the Young Communist League, went even further. Revealing a remarkably slender grasp of reality, the league announced the country was “on the right track despite a bleak picture about the state of the nation painted in public by the neoliberal media and its apologists”.

This “bleak picture” is made up of an officially acknowledged 35%-plus unemployment rate, with widespread hunger as the norm and where the majority of families live below any designated poverty line. Much of this not, unfortunately, very widely reported in the media.

Not unexpectedly, the praise-singing for the government was totally opposed by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), once the largest — and now expelled — affiliate of Cosatu. Numsa announced it was “appalled” by a Sona that revealed a government which had “lost all grasp of the deep problems facing the overwhelming majority of South African people”.

In saying this, Numsa was in tune with most commentators. But the union went on to make it abundantly clear that it is in election mode and intends to “move with urgency to establish a new democratic workers’ party, which will stand for the complete socialist transformation of society”.

This, of course, is the same goal apparently aimed at by the leaders of Cosatu, many of whom share leadership positions in the communist party. The problem here is there seems to exist no clear definition of what is meant by socialism.

Perhaps, as one veteran trade unionist remarked, “it’s simply a battle between a hostile band of Stalinist brothers”. This in reference to the fact that the leading polemicists in the SACP, Cosatu and Numsa all share the same political pedigree and appear still to look to what existed in the former Soviet Union as “socialism”.

Lost in all this fiery rhetoric is a practical proposal from the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) that, in these economically parlous times, government should cut costs at the top, starting by reducing the grossly bloated Cabinet.

While Germany, for example, has a head of state, Angela Merkel and 15 Cabinet ministers, we have a president, deputy president, 35 ministers and 37 deputy ministers.

The total cost, in salaries alone – there are also perks that include medical aid, free and subsidised housing, transport and other allowances – is more than R160 million a year. Fedusa proposes that a Cabinet for South Africa should comprise 10 ministers and that they should take a 25% pay cut.

Not a bad place to start?

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August 2020

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