Editorial: We’d like to trust Zuma, but …

Developing a more durable solution to South Africa's stark inequality problem.

The president called together representatives from government, business and labour to thrash out an agreement on how best to respond to the violence that has put thousands of jobs and billions in investment at risk since the August killings at Lonmin's Marikana mine.

They produced a list of measures that represent the first clear, albeit limited, move in the right direction.

In a country that has been clamouring for leadership, Zuma might have felt entitled to expect applause, or at least relief at this first step. Instead he got yawns, scepticism and banal "get back to work" headlines.

The agreement deserves a more measured response.

Underlying causes of discontent
It is built around an assessment that there are three core priorities: addressing the underlying causes of discontent, which are to be found in inequality, miserable government services and unemployment (for starters), the nature of the security response and the restoration of "orderly collective bargaining processes and institutions" – the unions and bargaining councils that have been rendered impotent.

"The purpose of the package is to instil confidence in the economy and to indicate to the nation that social partners will – on their own and together – act decisively to promote inclusive growth, job creation and social stability."

Practical commitments include an end to negotiations with informal local strike committees, a move to co-ordinated bargaining in the "fragmented" platinum sector in which wages vary between companies, the fast-tracking of infrastructure projects that will create work and stimulate the economy, and promises from business to avoid price-gouging on public projects.

It was the commitment to rein in the pay of top government officials and executives, however, that prompted a chorus of guffaws.

Zuma has no one but himself to blame for that. When the Mail & Guardian first reported on the lavish new buildings at his private Nkandla home two years ago, he laughed it off and we were fed cost estimates of R69-million. It is now a matter of notoriety that more than R240-million in government money has been spent.

Nkandla smart village
Promises of salary restraint in the face of such gross excess ring very hollow.

Similarly, when we revealed the construction of the gleaming new "Nkandla smart village", now universally known as Zumaville, he insisted the development was simply one rural development project among many.

It is a claim that simply will not stand up in the face of the broken communities all across the mining belt, where ANC infighting and corruption siphon off cash and energy from the delivery of housing, sanitation, roads and schools.

Business leaders' real credibility issues are over pay, to be sure. But the standard is higher still for elected leaders who are living large on the public purse and union officials whose better jobs and questionable perks can alienate them from their constituencies. They will not again be able, credibly, to act as the representatives of workers unless they visibly alter their own behaviour.

Without durable legitimacy, neither political nor union leaders will be able to deliver labour peace, to say nothing of the efficient, cleanly administered infrastructure projects that are so crucial to growth and job creation.

Bargaining agreements concluded between the empty shells of traditional unions and mining houses with the blessing of an ANC government that is politically tied to the same unions will not prevent unrest.

Bargaining system
That said, the agreement solidifies some important basic principles and tries to forge connections between basic security, the wage bargaining system, economic growth and government performance.

It will fail, of course, in the absence of a detailed implementation plan and the political will, thus far absent, to drive it.

It will also fail if governance in both the mining belt and the areas that send migrant labour north – notably the Eastern Cape – is not dramatically improved.

A new road through Pondoland – one of the projects on the fast-track list announced by Zuma – will do little to alleviate the deep misery of that region if chronic corruption and mismanagement in local and provincial government are not tackled.

Plans for new road-building in North West, the most troubled region of all, will not be much help while the provincial department of roads, transport and public works is mired by corruption allegations, with senior officials suspended over a tender row and ANC members of provincial legislature calling on Premier Thandi Modise to remove the members of the  executive committee they see as responsible for the mess.

In short, to the extent that it represents an end to two months of dangerous drift, the agreement is welcome, but the chasms of this violent strike season run deep in our political economy.

The biggest bridge Zuma needs to build is the one across his own credibility gap.


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