Cyril gives Cosatu a little TLC, but a group hug is still far off
Cosatu may have welcomed Ramaphosa to their HQ, but as soon as the singing died down they had a litany of complaints
It was just after 10am when President Cyril Ramphosa arrived on the first floor of Cosatu House, the labour federation’s Braamfontein headquarters in Johannesburg, on Tuesday. He was immediately ushered into the left side entrance of the boardroom where members of the central executive committee – leaders of affiliated unions and provincial secretaries of the federation – had been waiting since the early morning.
Phakama Ramaphosa, ixesha lisondele (arise Rampahosa, your time has arrived) they sang in unison as they welcomed the leader they had campaigned strongly for in the ANC and whom they rightfully claim as their own. But as soon as the songs died down and the cameras stopped flashing, Cosatu leaders made it clear they had a bone to pick with their man.
Among the litany of complaints, said an insider, was that Ramaphosa had not adequately consulted with the alliance when he appointed his first cabinet. The president is said to have acknowledged this oversight, promising wider consultation in the future ahead of key appointments.
But it’s not just unhappiness over cabinet appointments that is on the president’s “fix alliance” in-tray; the whole relationship is in need of a little TLC. Deep fissures emerged towards the latter part of Jacob Zuma’s presidency, with Cosatu even barring the former president from addressing any of its gatherings. The federation had repeatedly called on Zuma to step down.Zuma himself took a hard line against his former staunch allies, frustrating planned formal engagements at a political level, insisting he had nothing to say to people who wanted him gone. The election of Ramaphosa as ANC president in December was just the first step in a multiple-stage healing process. Even he acknowledged on Tuesday that there were still major differences of opinion on key issues but insisted that talking about them was better than ignoring each other.
“The important thing is we are strengthening the platform for us to engage and we all agreed there is just no alternative for all of us as an alliance (but) to engage. Our engagement even on issues we may not see eye to eye on should never (lead to) the alliance being weakened. It should actually be even more strengthened because we are a campaigning alliance, we are a governing alliance that needs to deal with issues and lead our people,” he told journalists as he emerged from the three-hour meeting flanked by Cosatu general-secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali.
Indeed, the ANC must talk to its alliance partners because it needs them for what is going to be a gruelling election campaign. In this time of Thuma Mina, who better to send to the people to convince them that the ANC is on the path to recovery than your alliance leaders? But the messengers have a few concerns they want addressed first before they can hit the streets.They are still sulking over the hike in the VAT rate from 14% to 15%, arguing that their working-class members will be the hardest hit. Government has sought to appease them by embarking on a process of increasing the basket of zero-rated goods, especially basic food items. Cosatu is still agitating for a total ban of labour brokers and, after years of government inaction, their patience is wearing thin.
“We demand that this year the existence of labour brokers must be declared a criminal activity punishable by the law at the same level as an exercise of slavery. Labour brokers must be banned now – if not, we will be forced to [take to] the streets,” Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini said at the national workers’ day rally in Port Elizabeth earlier this month.
The ANC and its allies in labour also don’t see eye to eye on the insertion of independent power producers to the national power grid, and the collapse of service delivery, especially at municipal level. Trade unions are bleeding members at an alarming rate and they want to know what is being done to fix the economy so that it can create more jobs; but not just any jobs. They demand “quality jobs”.
What Ramaphosa and Cosatu agreed to at the end of the engagement was to arrange the long overdue political council between the ANC and all its three alliance partners where points of difference can be fleshed out in more detail. It is not a given that at the end of this meeting they will have agreed on everything, but the need to talk it out and hug has become urgent; elections are just around the corner.