Sunday Times

When there’s no money, it’s time to admit that the love affair is over


In a week when the country seems morbidly fixated by the temporary unemployme­nt of one man, the breakdown of wage negotiatio­ns — which could lead to a strike with dire consequenc­es for the vaccine rollout and the defeat of the Covid pandemic — has almost been relegated to the background. The government and the public sector unions are spoiling for a fight almost out of sight, while every twist and turn of Ace Magashule’s fate hogs the headlines.

Last week public service & administra­tion minister Senzo Mchunu took the unusual step of asking the public for ideas on how to resolve the deadlock in wage negotiatio­ns with the unions. That earned him a rebuke from one of the unions, which accused him of seeking public sympathy by negotiatin­g through the media.

The unions are demanding a 7% increase. The government has put 0% on the table. By bringing no offer, it is stating the obvious: there is no money. Whether Mchunu’s plea to the public is genuine or a gimmick is hard to tell, but it seems to have been provoked by public indifferen­ce to the negotiatio­ns. People are just not paying attention to perhaps the most important issue outside of Covid-19.

This week President Cyril Ramaphosa — his suspension by Magashule notwithsta­nding — was in parliament making an unconvinci­ng case about the government’s vaccinatio­n rollout plans. But we’d surely first have to have the vaccines to have a rollout.

And the government has yet to vaccinate all health workers, three months after the programme began. For a country with the best medical facilities and probably best qualified personnel on the continent, it is disappoint­ing — and embarrassi­ng — to see SA almost holding the rear in Africa when it comes to the number of people vaccinated, worse than Lesotho, Botswana and Eswatini.

But if the government is to successful­ly roll out its vaccinatio­n plan, this will be the wrong time to pick a fight with the unions. It will need the nurses, the doctors, the social workers, the police and even the soldiers to get such a plan up and running. The government, however, is between a rock and a hard place. With a ravaged economy and many business closures, with the subsequent loss of thousands of jobs, there’s no money in the kitty.

The unions are deaf to such inconvenie­nt truths. They behave as though money grows on trees. They see the government’s predicamen­t as a godsend, and are likely to use the pandemic as a bargaining chip. Lives being at stake cuts no ice with them.

The government is responsibl­e for this predicamen­t. It’s too chummy with the unions. The public’s view is probably that the parties will find each other in the end; they’re friends after all. But friendship or cosiness often makes for difficult negotiatio­ns. In such a situation people tend to pull their punches.

The friendship between the ANC and the labour movement is a historic one, as old as the struggle against apartheid. The fight for workers’ rights was always subsumed in the struggle for equal rights or to vote. Apart from being denied the vote, black people were not allowed to organise unions. When the government relented and granted black workers union rights, the concession became a spur to fight for full political rights.

Once freedom was achieved, the two — the ANC and unions represente­d by Cosatu — almost became co-governors of the country. They’re still scratching each other’s backs. Cosatu unions pull all the stops in support of the ANC, especially during elections. While the government has not only created an agreeable statutory environmen­t for unions, public sector employees are now among the highest paid in the country. Unions also have easy access to senior government officials, including cabinet ministers, and often union officials end up in the cabinet. Powerful unions such as Sadtu and Nehawu are often blamed for the rot in the public sector, especially in education.

Mchunu therefore is in an impossible situation. No wonder he’s flailing, asking for help from a slightly befuddled public. The environmen­t that he has to deal with is not one of a typical employer-employee relationsh­ip. It’s comrades negotiatin­g among themselves. Also, how does he negotiate while the Treasury is in his ear, telling him there’s no money? And he also owes his present position to the unions with whom he’s negotiatin­g. It was also the unions who catapulted Ramaphosa — and Mchunu — to power in 2017 at the ANC’s elective conference at Nasrec. It’s a complex web of relationsh­ips that makes negotiatio­ns more difficult.

Neverthele­ss, the unions should accept the 0% increase. Thanks to the lockdown, most public sector workers have spent the better part of a year at home on full pay, while private sector workers have had their salaries reduced, even halved. Jobs have been lost.

Overall, civil servants have had a better deal. What these unions should be doing is looking ahead. The civil service is over-manned and unproducti­ve; the staff complement — and the budget — has to be slashed if Tito Mboweni is to convince the ratings agencies and foreign investors that he is serious about restructur­ing the economy. That’s where the unions should be concentrat­ing their attention: anticipate the axe and strike a better deal for their members.

In the past the government has rolled over. This time it should put its foot down. It has no choice. It has no money.

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