The rabble at ANC's gates

For South Africa’s political class, accustomed to viewing the world through ANC succession goggles, Wednesday’s march and national strike led by union federation Cosatu looked like a massive roadblock on the journey to Mangaung.

And there can be little doubt that was part of its function.

For Zwelinzima Vavi, it was a powerful statement of the unions’ unrivalled capacity to mobilise and a warning that the influence he wielded in the days of the Zuma tsunami is undiminished—a message both for his wavering union comrades and for President Jacob Zuma.

For Julius Malema it was a ready-made opportunity to associate himself with anger and to hitch an economic freedom ride on the back of the juggernaut.

It was also a typically canny bit of political marketing by Vavi. By linking the quintessentially middle-class outrage over e-tolls to the core union issue of labour broking, he secured a broadly sympathetic reaction to the kind of strike action that ordinarily results in talk-radio outrage.

Of course, travel costs weigh heavily on workers thanks to apartheid urban design and weak public-transport investment, but tolls are hardly a hot-button issue for the working poor.

Even labour-broking, which union officials and activists feel strongly about, does not have the same quality of live outrage as wages, working conditions and service delivery.

And, in any event, Cosatu has already secured policy concessions in this area.

Nedlac discussions have been making progress on labour broking.
The department of labour has proposals to amend the law to ensure stricter regulation and to prohibit certain abusive practices. The regulations would force all employers to give permanent employment to all casual labourers who have been employed for more than six months.

And the government has made concessions on e-tolling, with the announcement of a special appropriation of R5.8-billion by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to mitigate the cost for motorists.

That is money that will not be available for other job-creating or pro-poor initiatives. Frankly, the scale of the fiscal mugging perpetrated against the treasury and its budget processes in this saga would beggar belief if the Gautrain had not set such a dreadful precedent.

These issues, then, are ways to talk about the real concern: a government, and an ANC, that too often says, as Jimmy Manyi did of tolls, ‘Get used to it”. Actually, says the voice from the streets, you are going to have to get used to us.

For an ANC that has turned inward to deal with the intimately linked crises of factionalism and rent-seeking, Wednesday’s events may feel threatening. Inside Luthuli House disciplinary processes and the editing of policy documents; outside a mass demonstration of popular will with moral support, if not actual shoe-leather, contributed from across the class and race spectrum. Where is the real power?

Certainly, the ANC has plenty, but it is increasingly contested and it would do well to heed the sound of feet outside its doors. As former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo remarked at a conference on the Constitution while the march was taking place, our founding law envisages a society of citizens, not subjects, and citizens are noisy. South Africans are remembering that. Good.

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