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Solidarity in opposition to Gear
Cosatus battle with government over economic policy reached a head this week. Compromise seems unlikely, writes Sechaba kaNkosi.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions sixth national congress in Kempton Park this week exposed deep-rooted mistrust between the labour federation and the government on the growth, employment and redistribution (Gear) strategy. The meeting saw Cosatu affiliates uniting firmly behind the federations total opposition to the macro-economic policy.

Even affiliates that had earlier called for a more open approach towards Gear suddenly switched from possible compromise to outright rejection. In fact, the dominant view came from influential affiliates that advocate a meeting possibly next year to map out an alternative economic model to advance Cosatus stated commitment to socialism.

President Nelson Mandela twice tried to get Cosatu to give Gear a chance, but was openly snubbed by angry delegates who saw the strategy as an ideological shift by the African National Congress from its left- wing orientations to the right. In fact Cosatu president John Gomomo labelled the strategy as the reverse gear of our society.

The South African Railways and Harbour Workers Union (Sarhwu) suddenly withdrew a proposal calling for engagement with the government because Gear could not be rejected as a whole. The proposal had noted that while there were areas of disagreement on the strategy, we need to take cognisance of the fact that the climate for foreign investment must be conducive. In order that South Africa is not also rejected by the international community that played a pivotal role in our struggle, Cosatu should isolate problematic elements of Gear to contest them in the [proposed alliance] summit.

However, according to Sarhwu general secretary Derrick Simoko, it was withdrawn because we did not want to open a debate on the matter, and our membership rejected it.

Simoko could not explain, however, how a proposal adopted by Sarhwu as a resolution in its own congress could suddenly be rejected by the union, except to say that the resolution was adopted in 1995, a year before the government announced its economic reform strategy.

However, the proposal that was supposed to be tabled at the Cosatu meeting stated its reference to Gear very clearly.

The withdrawal of Sarhwus proposal came a day after the congress openly shunned Mandelas call for consensus on the macro- economic strategy. In what appeared to be a reconciliatory message to his allies, Mandela stood before 2 300 delegates to admit to some of the concerns raised by Cosatu on the strategy. He conceded that there had not been enough consultation between the ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party before the adoption of the strategy. Even the ANC, said Mandela, only learnt of Gear when it was almost complete.

But Mandela pointed to narrow interests among alliance partners as a possible reason for the misunderstanding on Gear. He said individual positions are assumed as definite and therefore a must for others to accept. While it was natural for partners not to agree on all matters, this must be accompanied by a readiness to discuss disagreements and a shared commitment to finding solutions.

It is, therefore, not in keeping with the character of our alliance when Cosatu declares that positions it holds that differ from those of the ANC or government are non-negotiable. By the same token, it is wrong for the ANC to present its positions as non-negotiable, even while exercising its broader responsibilities in government.

Our starting point must be the need to ensure that we produce the resources to achieve the goals of reconstruction and development; to use them to the greatest effect to improve the lives of our people, especially the poor; and to adopt policies which promote the achievement of those goals, said Mandela.

Mandela urged the delegates to give Gear a chance since it had managed to turn the economy around. He said it was wrong for Cosatu to blame Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel for Gear. Praising him as one of the most brilliant young men this country has produced, Mandela told the delegates that Gear was actually a collective effort of the entire Cabinet. He even reiterated the governments latest stance that the strategy was not cast in stone, and if ANC allies are not happy about it, then the unhappiness needed to be addressed.

Its usefulness must be measured against its goals. Its appropriateness must be judged in the light of prevailing conditions. For the same reasons, any proposed elaboration or modification must find justification in changes in objective conditions and not merely in a desire or agreement, or in a sectoral drive to satisfy narrow self-interest.

And while our measuring-rod must always be improvement in the lives of the poor, democracy dictates that any such decisions must be with the involvement in all major sectors of our society including labour and business, argued Mandela.
It was soon after this plea that delegates and their leaders sent a clear message to Mandela that as far as Cosatu was concerned, Gear remained non-negotiable. Just a few seconds after he had finished his speech, the delegates reaffirmed their rejection in songs and slogans and pledged their commitment to the Reconstruction and Development Programme.

In fact Cosatu deputy president Connie September summed up Cosatus attitude towards Gear: We we wont change our opposition to Gear, she told the congress.

Gomomo said while Cosatu is committed and should remain in the alliance, Gear represented a real shift in the conceptualisation of macro-economic policy by the ANC. Gomomo described the policy as an empty shell that would not deliver any benefit to the working classes, particularly the rural and the unemployed.

Left unchallenged, it can only mean more poverty and the increase of the gap between the rich and the poor. More importantly, he warned, it will mean that the government is curtailed from addressing the legacy left by apartheid.