SAM MKOKELI: Mayday for Cosatu, Ramaphosa and Mboweni?
Cosatu had a fat go at Tito Mboweni recently, advising the Finance Minister to retire in line with the advice he gave to workers in their mid 50s.
That the labour federation occasionally has dig at him should come as no surprise: labour and the economic establishment do not make easy bedfellows.
And most Cosatu leaders just do not like the guy and it's easy to see why. Mboweni's mind works in its own colourful way. He is outspoken, and often thinks aloud. He is very consistent in his views about public sector efficiency or lack thereof, and the need to create a lean bureaucracy and all that jazz. If it were up to him, the Cabinet would have around 20 to 25 ministers, and no deputies (what do they do really?)
No doubt Mboweni (60) received no "Happy Workers May Day, Minister" cards from the likes of Michael Shingange, Cosatu’s first deputy president. The trade unionist recently told Bloomberg: "This is a man who says people (civil servants) who are 55 years old must retire because they are too old," Shingange said. “It would be a huge shock for us if Tito Mboweni was to avail himself to be the minister of finance (after the May 8 elections)."
Cosatu leaders seem to believe their problem is with Mboweni alone and not at all with the the man who appointed him to the finance portfolio. The federation strongly campaigned for Cyril Ramaphosa before the Nasrec election in December 2017. They effectively gave him a blank cheque. The unionists are working on a number of assumptions, including the belief that Ramaphosa can save both the ANC and the the economy. These ideals mean different things to different people and if not cast in stone ahead of time, that's a classic case of planting seeds of discord for yourself.
The economic situation sets Ramaphosa against labour's interests, and Cosatu doesn't get that yet. Public debt is around 60%, and we are in the junk basket according to two ratings agencies. Only Moody's is nice enough to have us just one notch above junk. We have an increasing budget deficit, at 4% of GDP. SAA, Eskom, SABC, and just about every serious state-owned company needs prayers. This situation is taking us closer to an IMF bailout, which will come with stringent conditions that will force Ramaphosa to wield the axe on a bloated public service. Even if this pill was not rammed down our throats by the IMF, the fiscal situation is just not sustainable. So a difficult path is the only way out of the pit, IMF or not.
Cosatu has to prepare itself to two scenarios. Lower public sector salary increases, job losses pretty much across the state including at huge employers like Eskom (with a 45,000 strong workforce), or get ready for a fight with Ramaphosa, the man who gave us Mboweni, and stop taking cheap shots at the finance minister himself.
Mboweni is a good foil for Ramaphosa. The finance minister speaks his market-friendly mind, and shortsighted labour leaders take aim at him thinking he is just self-serving. The fact is that Mboweni's bravado is effectively providing cover for the president.
The cover Mboweni provides allows "Number One" (in political and spook parlance) to smile and sound genuinely caring for the left, when in fact, on the issue of economic policy, he is a raging lackey of the markets, just like Mboweni, if not worse.
To break down what Ramaphosa has to do in the short term: the new Cabinet has to decide on the size of an effective political administration or bureaucracy. Then what to do with the Eskom financial situation? Do they restructure the parastatal's debt, to buy time, and under what conditions or promises to the debt providers? Do they shed 15,000 jobs at the power utility?
These questions are missing when Cosatu leaders shout "Amandla" from various podiums. It seems nothing was learnt when they introduced the Jacob Zuma wrecking ball in Polokwane in 2007 under the patently false belief that he would create a "Lurch to the Left".
Ramaphosa is no Jacob Zuma, and their destinies are not likely to be the same. However, the 2019 economic reality forces the president to operate differently. He cannot continue being everything to everyone, as he has been doing so far. And Cosatu simply does not realise that. They will be the losers here, and by the time they realise it, it will be too late. Or they can do it their way and and keep looking for false targets in the form of Mboweni. That's fine. Just that they should not scream blue murder or "May Day May Day" when workers decide to desert the federation in droves for being part of the "economic establishment". The future just does not look rosy for the average consumer or worker, what with inflation, petrol prices going up and likely to stay that way for the next while. Misreading the economic situation will lead to wrong political turns.
Sam Mkokeli is a journalist and freelance contributor for Eyewitness News.