In a statement released on Monday, ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu requested that the DA desist from marching to Cosatu House as this would “heighten unnecessary tension”.
Mthembu said the DA’s decision was “ill-informed and opportunistic” and did not add value to the debate about labour brokers and the youth wage subsidy. He said rather than being “confrontational and provocative”, the DA should engage with Cosatu on its views.
“We would like to remind the DA that Cosatu is not a public service institution but … a private workers’ federation. It therefore boggles the mind why the DA would march to a private institution that has no legal authority with regard to the implementation of government policy and policy direction,” he said.
The DA’s march, which will protest against the trade union federation’s opposition to the youth wage subsidy, was planned weeks ago. The DA believes the subsidy, which is being debated at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), could create as many as 423 000 jobs for unemployed youth.
On Sunday, Cosatu affiliates – including the National Union of Metalworkers’ of South Africa (Numsa), the South African Commercial Catering and Allied Workers’ Union, the Communication Workers’ Union and the Progressive Youth Alliance – released a statement saying they viewed the DA’s march as “class provocation“.
Speaking on behalf of the group, Numsa secretary general Irvin Jim said: “The DA march marks the beginnings of an open class warfare that will characterise the South African landscape.”
The DA has defended its support of the youth wage subsidy. Its national spokesperson Mmusi Maimane said he was not surprised by the position Cosatu had taken. “Cosatu just wants to speak for the poor while focused on job preservation rather than job creation,” he said.
He said the union was creating a “straw man” of race and class and failed to present viable alternatives for creating jobs for young people.
“Even [planning] minister Trevor Manuel, as part of his National Development Plan, agrees with a youth wage subsidy; so why were those same responses not put forward to [him]? It’s indicative to me of the type of hypocrisy put forward by unions,” he said.
Maimane said the DA had tried other ways to engage Cosatu on the issue, including raising the matter at Nedlac and other forums, and that the march was a last resort.
Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven told the Mail & Guardian it was unlikely that getting around a table to discuss their disagreements would do much to help Cosatu and the DA resolve their differences.
“We regard the differences between us and them to be much too fundamental to sort out around a table,” he said.
Craven said the trade union federation viewed the youth wage subsidy as a “completely bogus solution”.
“Of course we want to create jobs for young people but it can’t be done with quick fix solutions that don’t create any new jobs,” he said. “We want to find real sustainable solutions to the problem of unemployment and youth unemployment in particular.”
Craven said although it had invited its members to gather at Cosatu House to meet protesters, Cosatu would do everything in its power to ensure the gathering was peaceful.
“If they hand over a memorandum then we shall receive it and I hope have some time to make some comments,” he said.
Eusebius McKaiser, an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics, said the march was also evidence of the DA’s attempts to rebrand itself as pro-poor.
“The reason they are going after Cosatu, even though Cosatu is not in the government, is because the DA is desperately trying to shed its image as a middle-class party,” he said.
McKaiser said organised marches were a legitimate route to political engagement in South Africa and that they captured the attention of the poor majority.
“Marching is a tactic Cosatu itself uses routinely as a legitimate form of political engagement. Is the DA too white or too middle class to march?” he asked.
But changing the DA’s image would take more than just a march. “If the DA wants to be pro-poor they have to communicate that with all their policies and the way they communicate with the poor on all issues,” he said.
Meanwhile Steven Friedman, director at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, said the march was indicative of a general assault on unions from parts of the business sector.
“The real story here is an intellectual and ideological assault on the labour movement. Whether it’s the DA and their march, [labour] consultants and people producing spurious surveys, or the chamber of commerce and industry demanding that labour laws be changed, there really is an assault on the idea of trade unionism in the country,” he said.
He said that there was an implication from some quarters that Cosatu was not just wrong on certain labour issues but was itself causing problems for labour.
“I don’t think one should fall for the smokescreen of saying this is about a youth wage subsidy,” he said.
The march is scheduled to start at Beyers Naude Square at 10.45am and proceed through the city centre to Cosatu’s headquarters on Jorissen Street, where DA leaders will present brief statements before handing over a memorandum to Cosatu.
The party said it expected about 5 000 people, including DA supporters and unemployed people from neighbouring provinces, to join the action.