/ 26 July 2008

Fear the wrath of the poor — Cosatu

Cosatu leaders who spearheaded protest marches against rising food, fuel and electricity prices have sent a clear message to the new ANC leadership that they will not be spared the workers’ wrath if they do not implement ”pro-poor” policies.

Although Cosatu’s protest action this week in Johannesburg, Rustenburg, Port Elizabeth, East London, Mthatha and Queenstown was targeted at government and business, it also sounded a warning to the Jacob Zuma-led ANC that the trade union movement would want immediate changes on policy once the new ANC leadership takes over government next year.

This week Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi also took a swipe at the ANC leadership for not showing visible support for Cosatu’s demands. ”We don’t see our leaders in times of need. We see them only when we have to vote,” said Vavi, adding that he expected more from the ruling party.

Vavi’s sentiments were shared by Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini.

”ANC must be on the forefront when the masses are rising. We expect the ANC to sit down and talk to us. We expect the leadership we have campaigned for in Polokwane to sit down with us.

”This is why Cosatu worked so hard to ensure [that] the leadership of the ANC is strongly biased towards the workers.”

Zuma and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe recently reassured investors that there would be no major policy changes, especially on monetary and fiscal policy, including interest rates and the budget surplus. Mantashe reportedly said there was no need to scrap government’s policy on inflation targeting and that the budget surplus was not a curse.

In contrast Cosatu and the SACP have argued repeatedly that government policy on inflation targeting disproportionately hits the poor.

The country’s largest trade union federation strongly criticised South Africa’s budget surplus in the past, arguing that because of the country’s significant developmental needs, government should spend more.

Cosatu’s series of strikes, which started earlier this month, mirror protests around the world as the poor buckle under the fallout from rising food prices and the cost of oil.

The federation wants business and government to find ways to protect workers and the poor from declining standards of living.

Vavi issued a strong warning to Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and his Cabinet colleagues this week, saying they will be sacked if they do not follow ”pro-poor” policies adopted at the ruling party’s national conference in December last year
Dlamini lashed out at Manuel for saying he would not expand the list of zero-rated basic foodstuffs to help the poor cope. He said Manuel’s position is contrary to the policies taken at Polokwane.

”You too [Manuel], if you do not listen to the voices of the poor, war unto you,” Dlamini told tens of thousands of marchers in Johannesburg.

The federation expects the government lekgotla, which took place this week, to spell out in clear terms the measures it will adopt to cushion the blow on the poor.

Government spokesperson Themba Maseko was unavailable for comment.

Dlamini told the Mail & Guardian this week that Manuel’s refusal to expand the list of zero-rated basic foodstuffs was premature.

”That is jumping the gun. Cosatu was not part of the discussion.

”We are calling for a zero rate to stabilise prices.

Dlamini said union and business leaders will approach the treasury next week to discuss the food and electricity crisis.

He said Cosatu had already met Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica and will meet her again next week in a bid to persuade her to stop mining companies from retrenching workers.

It is understood a number of mining companies are contemplating retrenchments as a result of the 10% electricity cut-off by Eskom.

Cosatu also wants a reduction of the 27% tariff increase on electricity agreed by the National Electricity Regulator.