President Jacob Zuma’s intervention in the public service strike was as much an attempt to reassert his political power as a bid to bring the crippling labour action to an end, government officials and unionists said this week.
On his return from a state visit to China on Sunday last week, Zuma hastily called a meeting of ministers at which he instructed them to deal with the strike quickly and efficiently, Public Service and Administration Minister Richard Baloyi told the Mail & Guardian.
The meeting was attended by Baloyi, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga.
Said Baloyi: “The president did not just say ‘pump in the money to end the strike’. All that he wanted was to see the end of the strike. How we did it was up to our strength financially.”
The ministers presented him with details of an offer that a small team of negotatiors on both sides had been crafting during the previous week, which raised the wage increase to 7,5% and the housing allowance to R800.
The next morning, the offer was formally tabled in the public service bargaining chamber.
This was a major climb down by the government, which had been saying it lacked the means to increase its offer. Government ministers explained that government would have to borrow to meet its new pay commitments and that the effect would be to pare back service delivery.
However, workers did not react to the concession with gratitude.
In fact, said union officials, they were merely infuriated that Zuma’s intervention had resulted in “not even one” of their demands being met.
“If they at least came back and said ‘here’s 8,6%, the rest we need to discuss’, it would have been fine,” said Sizwe Pamla, the spokesperson for Cosatu’s health affiliate, Nehawu, the second-largest union on strike.
‘Come back from China and marry me’
Zuma had been criticised by strikers for attaching more importance to an overseas trip than to tackling the industrial action, which resulted in babies dying for lack of hospital treatment and school pupils deprived of lessons.
Among other things, Zuma’s state visit was designed to secure South Africa’s inclusion in the multilateral formation Bric, which now comprises key developing powers Brazil, India and China.
Pamla pointed out that while the unions had given the striking workers posters to brandish during protest marches, “they came up with their own ones”.
These included posters that commented on Zuma’s family and his polygamous marriages, such as: “Come back from China and marry me”.
Government spokesperson Themba Maseko said that once Zuma had returned from China, he had received “reports about people dying at hospitals and exams being postponed”.
“On that basis he urged negotiators to finalise this issue and stop the strike,” Maseko told the M&G.
However, government insiders said the president’s aim was broader: to shore up his shaky political authority, damaged by the strike. The image he sought to project on his return was that of a saviour overruling his ministers and ordering them to stop stonewalling workers’ demands.
It didn’t have the desired effect, Pamla said.
“JZ’s intervention, unfortunately, brought us no comfort, as they came to the table with very little.
“JZ must stand up as he did when people were saying we wouldn’t pull off the Fifa World Cup. He has not necessarily lost the people’s support, but he has lost their confidence. If people no longer trust you, it is difficult to keep supporting you,” Pamla warned.
Workers were also brimming with anger, Pamla said, because of government’s threat to fire them if they continued striking. “They say that we saved him when he was fired by Mbeki, now he wants to fire us,” he said.
The strike has not endeared some of Zuma’s supporters in the ANC to Cosatu. “This [strike] is not the voice of the working class, it is the striking class and they are irrational,” objected ANC national executive member Billy Masetlha.
Motsoaledi told the M&G that Zuma had given instructions for the ministers to end the strike in spite of their complaints that they had reached their spending limit.
“The only way we could move from the [earlier 7%] offer was to take money from somewhere else,” Motsoaledi said. “It will affect my department. It will affect all of us.”
He said the government was moving into risky territory in taking away from departments to inflate the state salary bill.
“I don’t think there is more that we can do. People must come to their senses,” he said.