/ 26 September 2014

Politics, economics and transformation get lost in translation

It can be hard to keep abreast of all the key catchphrases. Here's an attempt at understanding the latest South African political lexicon.

Minimum wage
South Africa doesn’t actually have a national minimum wage for all industries, just for a few of the most vulnerable sectors including domestic workers, farm labourers and soapie stars (just joking). But that’s what you’d imagine given the Generations cast striking over their average R55k a month salaries. Not to worry though, the Cosatu has rushed to their rescue to try to broker an agreement.

Pity they couldn’t help out Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana’s cattle herder. Zokwana was paying him R26 a day instead of the minimum wage for farm labourers of R111,69. Did we mention that Zokwana is the former president of the National Union of Mineworkers, which has been pretty vocal about the need for decent wages?

The ANC, meanwhile, is trying to get a national minimum wage passed across the board. Let’s hope all the party’s ministers understand exactly what that means.

Radical economic transformation
This phrase has been repeated so often by the ANC that it has lost all meaning. It seems the party is feeling the heat since its enfant terrible, Julius Malema, went off on his own and started the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), offering a radical fare of nationalisation and land grabs.

The ruling party has adopted some of the rhetoric without a really clear idea of what “radical economic transformation” actually means. As its secretary general Gwede Mantashe told one journalist, when pressed yet again over the mysterious term, this is not the time for “conceptual clarity”. Indeed.

Parliamentary attire
When the EFF first announced that its MPs would wear bright red workers’ garb to Parliament no one was quite sure why this was wrong. The only hard and fast rule for parliamentarians is that they shouldn’t wear party insignia. Nonetheless, the issue has now threatened to overshadow everything else in Parliament, with Malema calling it a symbolic battle on behalf of the working class.

Nice try, but this is not the first time the ANC has played fashion police. In June 2013 it released a statement stating that the Democratic Alliance’s then parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, was dressed inappropriately for Parliament, saying her attire showed a “total lack of respect”.

Mazibuko wore a paisley dress that ended above the knee, black stockings and a red jacket. When pressed at to what exactly was wrong with her outfit, a spokesperson said it was “difficult for me to describe it”. Maybe the ANC just doesn’t like the colour red.

Forces of the left
Everyone is uniting the forces of the left these days. The country’s biggest and sassiest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), is pretty much tired of kowtowing to the centre-right ANC. It kicked off the “forces of the left” party with a resistance expo last year, drawing together all sorts of grassroots social movements as part of its big plan to maybe – OK, definitely – form a political party one day. But it appears it is more interested in the process of putting together a genuine movement of, yes you guessed it, forces of the left.

Meanwhile, the EFF is the firecracker of the lot: going off with a bang and trying its best to also unify this mythical beast. Except that Numsa doesn’t want to play with the EFF, so now we’re left with two emerging left movements and some other sprinklings here and there.

Don’t blame yourself for going cross-eyed trying to identify where the forces of the left are actually going to emerge from.

Material conditions
For the South African Communist Party’s top dogs? (think Blade Nzimande), being a cheerleader for the working class means getting a comfy ministerial position and the best car your departmental budget can buy. Apparently this is all part of the communists’ sophisticated plan to infiltrate government and influence decisions towards a vision of socialism and, um, material equality.

It’s a common theme of the left. While Malema spun himself into a fury on behalf of the working class and poor, he seems unable to renounce the benefits his new position in Parliament has given him, despite sort of promising he would do so before being elected. While campaigning on a socialist platform, Malema slammed public officials for getting house, car and phone allowances despite their hefty salaries, and for not using state schools and hospitals.

Turns out he plans on doing exactly the same since getting elected, protesting to journalists he only meant he’d change his behaviour once his party was in control. Obviously.

Open opportunity society
The DA’s vision of what South Africa should look like is a term that is very clearly defined for the official opposition, which has reams of policy on its vision of an “open opportunity society”, and even tries to drop the phrase clumsily into everyday sentences, as only Helen Zille can do.

What the DA has been less than clear about, however, is how we level the playing field in a country with a legacy of centuries of racial and economic inequality. The party is so beholden to its conservative base that it finds it anathema to talk honestly about race, affirmative action or black economic empowerment. It usually bungles it, mixes its message or sort of adopts the ANC’s position with a few tweaks. Which means that as clear as its open opportunity society vision is in theory, how it plans to get us all there looks pretty murky from where we’re standing.