It has taken the trade unions several years to define a new enemy, but now they have one. Incredibly, they have chosen the National Development Plan (NDP), caricaturing it as a "right-wing" assault on workers. The objections aired so far are of the vague, populist type. Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was reported as saying that the NDP, which he described as replacing the Freedom Charter, was "a serious assault on workers".
Ever alert to the power of the mixed metaphor, Vavi added: "Forcing these things, these proposals, and making them the new Freedom Charter, will break the back of the camel. This will become the last straw in every respect." There was more: "The NDP represents a typical example of the chicken and a pig partnership in which the chicken offers to lay eggs for breakfast but asks the pig to donate bacon."
Cognisant of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) organisational disarray ahead of next year’s election, he wondered aloud whether it would be possible to sell the party to union members. Cosatu has been credited, perhaps a little generously, for providing the ANC with the machinery to run elections in the past and those who are planning the campaign must at least feel a tingling on the soles of their feet at the prospect of union opposition.
Germany’s mistake in both world wars was to fight on two fronts. Already facing the desertion of its middle-class voters, who are disillusioned with corruption and inefficient administration, the ANC does not want to have to fend off a second assault from its worker base.
So, Vavi’s threat, rather like that of the lad who threatens to walk off the field with his ball because the game is not going his way, is real and will have real consequences.
What makes it serious is the fact that Cosatu’s two powerhouses — the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) — share his disdain for the NDP.
Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim was quoted in the Mail & Guardian as saying: "After a thorough analysis, the (central committee) came to the extremely disturbing conclusion that significant and strategic parts of the NDP were directly lifted from Democratic Alliance (DA) policy documents."
Jim’s comments, restrained by his usual standards, reveal the weakness of the union’s position. There are no criticisms of substance. To state that there are similarities between parts of the NDP and DA policy documents is ludicrous to all but the most superficial observer. Presumably Jim is referring to the DA’s economic policy proposals that were revealed by party leader Helen Zille and other officials at a Rosebank hotel last year.
I was there and I recall being struck by how much the DA was borrowing from the NDP. Without wishing to disrespect the DA, it is extremely difficult to imagine the team that drove the NDP — Trevor Manuel, Cyril Ramaphosa, Bobby Godsell and Joel Netshitenzhe, among others — poring over the DA’s policy documents to steal sound bites. More so because they were well into drafting their policy while the DA’s plan was still a twinkle in Zille’s eye.
It was Netshitenzhe who warned last year that "the arrival of the worst in our body politic may not announce itself by knocking on the front door".
Delivering the Harold Wolpe lecture, he said: "South African leaders of transformation believe that there is a way out of pedestrian economic growth and development in which we are currently trapped. This is reflected, in part, in the expression of intent to build a developmental state, in the manner of the so-called Asian ‘tigers’, which have historically sustained high rates of growth and social inclusion over decades, and thus lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Such a state, it is argued, should have the strategic orientation for development, premised on the political will of the leadership to stake their all on a developmental project. It should have the legitimacy to mobilise society behind a vision and programmes to attain set objectives. It should be optimally organised to meet its objectives; and it should have the technical capacity within the bureaucracy to bring its intentions to life."
Netshitenzhe’s expression of the NDP’s vision of a developmental state at the centre of national life, but recognising the need to spur private sector growth and employment, hardly represents the vision of a "return to colonialism of a special type" of which Jim has spoken. Why, then, are Vavi and his fellow union bosses determined to sabotage the implementation of the NDP? The answer lies in their determination to own the country’s political life and to set its economic agenda in the interests of their members.
What has caused their anxiety is a subtle shift President Jacob Zuma made at the ANC’s Mangaung conference last year.
After sketching a global economic environment in which, he euphemistically said, "the atmosphere is not too rosy", Zuma mentioned the country’s credit downgrade. "We want to dismiss the perceptions that our country is falling apart because of the downgrades. Today, the ratings agencies and investors are asking whether the ANC can continue to manage this economy so that we can grow, create jobs, manage our debt and provide policy certainty."
Zuma’s answer to the growing criticism was to embrace the NDP "to provide strong economic leadership and steer our economy boldly" and demonstrate that "we do have a plan to grow the economy and create jobs".
The NDP was — and this is the subtle shift — "overarching". Since taking office, Zuma had played a sly if costly game of playing one constituency among his supporters off against another. He had appointed Manuel to head up the National Planning Commission, but had also created a ministry for the left’s Ebrahim Patel, which had produced a statist industrial development plan called the New Growth Path. It was a free-for-all as plans, which patently contradicted one another, were made public and ministers openly challenged the bits they did not like.
Now Zuma was saying the NDP — and, by extension, Manuel and his team — was king. Now watch for the italics: "Some of the instruments we are using, within the NDP framework, is our New Growth Path, which identifies the drivers of job creation."
It was a grammatically challenged statement of intent and the left finally knew where they stood — in the wings waiting for their cameo role in the big production.
It was a break with equivocation, which finally gave the Zuma presidency some substance. Until this statement was made, the left had treated the NDP with little seriousness. It was just another document in the pile of paper churned out by whoever had something to say. Now the cold reality had dawned — South Africa’s policy environment was no longer open to contestation and obfuscation.
Suddenly, the NDP’s suggestion that teachers actually pitch up to school on time and put in a full day’s work stood a chance of being implemented. So, too, plans to stimulate employment opportunities for the youth and other anathema to the left.
Zuma had made his mark and, after several months of regrouping, the trade union left is finally launching a winter counteroffensive. But Zuma’s commitment is going to prove a hard nut to crack. Or is it?
The NDP might not have the overzealous sting of Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the British left in the 1980s. But it will require the same species of political will to drive it through. The question is: Does Zuma have Thatcher’s balls?
Written by: Ray Hartley
Picture credit: Business Day
• Hartley is a former editor of the Sunday Times. This article was published on Business Day.