If the Democratic Alliance intended to torpedo the controversial youth wage subsidy scheme, or ensure its implementation was long delayed, it made great strides this week. Its march on the headquarters of Cosatu, already implacably opposed to any employment measure that does not create permanent positions with decent wages and benefits, now makes it virtually impossible for the union umbrella body to accept any compromise without a severe loss of face.
This is in addition to a substantial list of strategic mistakes the DA’s now infamous march in Johannesburg represents for a party generally considered canny, the occasional controversial tweet by party leader Helen Zille notwithstanding.
Although much of the focus this week has been on the reaction of Cosatu members and the federation suffered a barrage of criticism for intolerance, thuggish behaviour and the casual use of violence, even some DA leaders are wondering whether that sufficiently offsets the damage – including the damage done to the party by being perceived as a victim.
DA supporters in three Gauteng townships that have experienced service delivery protests in recent months said this week they would probably not fly the party colours in future, especially in volatile situations. Seeing people in the DA colours being pelted with stones and getting no action from the police did not inspire confidence.
“We have a lot of tolerance here and we unite around issues without worrying about who belongs to which party,” said a DA member from Thembisa, who is at the core of a group demanding lower electricity prices in the township.
Forceful about corruption
“Now it looks like we are the enemy and that beating us is okay. Don’t say I’m a coward, but I’m going to be careful next time.”
The choice of target could also represent a loss of focus for a party that has seen great leaps in voter support at a time when it casts itself as a true opposition, acting as a counterweight to and sanity check on the ANC.
DA supporters and potential sympathisers initially reacted with outrage at the violence and the underlying lack of tolerance it showed, and it remained a major part of the discussion.
But towards the end of the week other questions were being asked. Would Cosatu now be less forceful about corruption, or even more supportive of the ANC in general? And could such an effect last long enough to have an impact on elections? Ordinary members were not the only ones wondering.
“We used to know that it was the ANC and its approach that was keeping people poor,” said a DA party officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because “Helen won’t like this”. “Granted, the problem is actually the union policies of protecting those already in jobs and keeping wages high and rising. Yes, that is Cosatu’s fault.
“We’re not in Parliament to oppose Cosatu. The ANC listens to the unions and that is what we have to oppose. You oppose the ones who actually have the power.”
The DA had hoped the march and lobbying for the youth wage subsidy in general would be a major step in its ongoing campaign to reposition the party as being no less pro-poor than the ANC, but with a different approach to poverty alleviation – a focus on government efficiency, the elimination of corruption and orthodox economic policies such as productivity and global competitiveness.
But instead of having the flavour of a wage strike or a service delivery protest, the DA (with a little help from Cosatu members) managed to come across as paternalistic. And for some paternalism is strongly associated with repression.
“Those people look like they all have jobs,” said a spectator in Braamfontein as the DA and Cosatu groups faced off against one another, but before things turned violent. “What do they know about getting other people jobs?”
Perhaps because it is still seen as an elitist party, and often as a white one, that what the DA considers a sensible job-creation strategy is all too often treated as a self-serving prescription. Hastily scrawled posters among the Cosatu welcoming committee told the story: “Beware ANC apartheid is back”, “Zille is trying to Verwoert-erise GP and SA!!!”
Union members who turned out to counter the DA protest almost universally equated a youth wage subsidy with labour broking, saying both were intended to make workers into slaves, both would be to the benefit of those who were in control of the economy and both had DA support.
The recent controversial comments by FW de Klerk about the former bantustans added fuel to the fire.
“FW there on the TV – he says the blacks had a nice time in the homelands,” said a shop steward, standing in the shade of a building across the road from the Cosatu headquarters as the DA group made its way closer.
“The NP said to us that apartheid was for our own good. The DA says this [wage subsidy] is for our own good. You see? They are no different.”
The composition of the march, which overwhelmingly comprised black supporters, should easily have countered any such comparison. Instead, members of the public seemed to lean towards the Cosatu interpretation, with phrases such as “fronting”, “window-dressing” and “march for lunch” coming up again and again.
It may be a symptom of the lingering sense that the DA is the party of the bosses, or it may be a testimony to Cosatu’s power to frame the discourse, but the lack of a sense of honesty to the march certainly did not help.
Marchers going postal threaten union rights
Members of the Communication Workers’ Union attacked a post office vehicle in Braamfontein on Wednesday, just blocks away from where Cosatu supporters had clashed with Democratic Alliance marchers on Tuesday.
Though the trade union federation claims the majority of its street action is peaceful – and the numbers support that contention, especially during larger events – unions in its fold have become associated with low-level violence.
Marches during stalled wage negotiations have resulted in participants, whom Cosatu brands opportunist non-members, targeting delivery vehicles, uniformed workers not taking part in a strike, municipal property, hawkers and the occasional passer-by.
Particularly violent protests by the South African Municipal Workers’ Union in August last year resulted in the DA lobbying for legislation to hold unions financially responsible for the damage caused during the marches they organise. The party said it would be the best way to discourage such behaviour. Unions universally decried the suggestion as the financial suppression of dissent. But a perceived threat of violence alone is, in a small way, curbing the ability of unions to protest. The Labour Court has granted concerned parties interdicts preventing marches that could turn violent. Successful arguments included the infringement of the right of members of the public not to fear for their safety.
The metropolitan police services in Johannesburg and Cape Town have variously denied permission for marches, limited routes and imposed conditions on unions they suspected of being unable to control their members. Phillip de Wet