/ 16 July 2007

Cosatu policies go beyond ‘rhetoric’

When there are national policy debates, political “analysts” suddenly emerge. Many are seasoned and knowledgeable analysts who base their arguments on proper research. Others rely on anecdotal information, suck conclusions from their thumbs and contribute nothing to the national debate.

Ferial Haffajee’s Polokwane Briefing: “The state, revolution and rhetoric”, June 29, is unfortunately in the latter category — a poor attempt at analysis, without any of the analytical work for which the Mail and Guardian is known. The most perfunctory research would have disproved her assertion that the Congress of South African trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) have contributed nothing positive to political debate.

It is simply untrue that the “rhetoric” of leaders of the SACP and Cosatu represents the only policy positions of these organisations. The policies we have consistently developed over the past 20 years go far beyond shouting socialism from podiums or, as she puts it, making “sweeping statements”.

Clearly Haffajee did not bother to interview any national office bearer or policy specialist employed by Cosatu, or even to visit our website, which would have revealed an abundance of alternative policy positions on an array of issues.

The SACP can speak for itself, but here we will cite just a few examples of positive policies Cosatu has developed that go far beyond negative critiques of the government.

Cosatu’s 2005 central committee adopted an industrial policy focusing on making the state play a more developmental role, with a clear programme for job creation. Substantial research and analysis went into developing this policy paper, which was thoroughly interrogated and analysed.

The emergence of this industrial policy has contributed significantly to overall debate in developing a coherent national industrial policy. It is well known and documented and is continuously reflected in debates at Nedlac and other policy forums. In fact, our industrial policies have found their way into the ANC policies on economic transformation to be presented at the ANC national conference.

How does this square with talk of Cosatu’s “cavalier absence of thought” in policy debates?

Another example is the contentious debate on labour market reform. Here Cosatu has consistently developed clear proposals and vocally argued for the type of policies that South Africa should adopt. We have consistently opposed a two-tier labour market and promoted policies that create decent and quality employment, provide the necessary protection for worker rights, in particular for those employed in vulnerable sectors, the reform of skills institutions, and employment equity.

These are just a few of the policy positions developed, debated and argued, among many others, on issues such as world trade, education and health care. These alternative positions have found broad resonance, including at the ANC policy conference, where they were raised by ordinary ANC members who, unlike Haffajee, have bothered to read and familiarise themselves with Cosatu policies.

Whether Zwelinzima Vavi becomes minister of labour or Jeremy Cronin is appointed minister of finance is not the issue. It is the new policies that we know they would adopt. Today, as a result of conservative economic policies adopted in 1996 as part of the government’s growth, employment and redistribution (Gear) strategy, we continue to have a high level of unemployment compared to other middle-income countries.

Gear’s neoliberal polices were supposed to promote investment, create jobs and eliminate poverty through the market. The reality is that only business benefited; the market did not deliver a substantial reduction in unemployment, nor did Gear result in substantially increased investment.

The market approach has failed. Today we have an unemployment rate of 25% compared to a comparative rate in upper middle-income countries of 12%. The poorest 60% of the population has only a 20% share of national income compared to 10% of the population having 45% of income. Some 18% of the households struggle to meet basic food needs. This is the reality and we have made various critical policy interventions to address this.

Despite the many development challenges our country faces, the finance ministry continues to boast about its budget surplus.

Cosatu and other progressive organisations have taken a very clear and very positive anti-poverty stance. We will continue to argue for a state that will play an interventionist role and contribute towards a job-creation strategy coupled to increasing social grants, including a basic income grant, free education and the development of a national health insurance policy.

One can only draw the conclusion that Haffajee has joined the long queue of media analysts who level unfounded and unfair criticism against the left in general, and Cosatu in particular — in her case, with a complete absence of evidence.

Rudi Dicks is with the Cosatu policy unit and Patrick Craven is spokesperson for the federation