Lee-Roy Chetty
Lee-Roy Chetty

Marching left but walking (and talking) right

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce” is Karl Marx’s famous quote in his 1852 book titled The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. In the preface to the book, Marx said it was his specific intention to demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships which made it possible for a “grotesque mediocrity” to play a hero’s part.

Fittingly, it is within this context that the DA marched to Cosatu House in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Ostensibly it would appear that this was to have their demands met for a youth wage subsidy to be implemented. The purpose of the march was to “take the fight” to the ANC’s alliance partners who are seen to be continuing to deny young South Africans a wage subsidy which would, in theory, create over 400 000 jobs over a three-year period.

If it was their intention to “take the fight” to the alliance partners, then their wish was certainly granted. Not for one moment am I condoning the scenes which unfolded in the streets of Braamfontein. Those who incited tension and the perpetrators of the violence should all be held to account. That kind of behaviour and intolerance has no place in our country. But I think enough will be written about it in terms of the unrest in the streets in the coming days, weeks and months, both from the DA and Cosatu. What needs to be addressed is a slightly more nuanced issue.

The DA’s gesture, if authentic, should be commended. However, I have my suspicions. A billboard, which has been strategically placed in central Johannesburg, carries the slogan “We want a youth wage and we want it now!” Wow. If it wasn’t for the DA’s hues of blue on the billboard, one would swear that the slogan wouldn’t have looked out of place with a hammer and sickle on it emblazoned on a red background. But, in blue, it still had a modicum of revolutionary fire and Marxist tone, and was almost believable. Well, almost.

The address delivered by DA leader Helen Zille outside Cosatu House was done in typical, strident and incendiary fashion: “Today we march for jobs. Today we march in solidarity with unemployed South Africans – the millions of ordinary men and women who are looking for a fair chance to build a better life for themselves and their families.”

But can the DA really claim to be representing the vulnerable, poor, marginalised and working class in our country? When their own province falls disgracefully short of our national labour laws?

In a 96-page report released on August 23 2011 by Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries, horrendous abuses of farm workers in the Western Cape are detailed. With almost a year passing since the publication of the independent report, no action has as yet been taken. There’s been denials and dismissive comments, but then this has become a growing trend hasn’t it?

Indeed, whenever an independent body comes up with findings that the DA finds unpalatable, it is immediately dismissed. Methodologies, validity and balance of reporting are questioned, whether it’s a chapter nine institution such as the Public Protector and her recent observations on tender irregularities or the state of farm workers and labour conditions in a DA-run province. Denial and threatened court action seems to be the order of the day.

In the HRW report, a picture of gross human rights abuses emerged through the 260 interviews conducted with farm workers, farm owners, civil society members, government and trade union officials. Examples of human rights violations include housing conditions often being close to uninhabitable for human beings; land evictions occurring with farmers using nefarious means to evict farm workers; workers being required to work without protective clothing against harmful pesticides; farmers often refusing to grant workers sick leave and workers often not having access to the most basic of human rights including sanitation and water; and finally, workers being prevented from joining unions to enforce their rights. Not very pro-worker is it?

This depressing picture emerges despite the wine and fruit industry in the Western Cape creating billions of rand in profits every year. This is also despite the strict labour conditions that exist in the country to protect the most vulnerable. Instead of the DA heeding the advice of an international, independent organisation, the premier of the province disputed the findings of the report. An independent report. With no links to opposition parties, the government or any other special interest group(s).

But herein lays the dilemma for the official opposition. With the focus on growing its electoral base in the coming years, it seems that the DA is facing an identity crisis. It must be seen as though they speak for the working class and poor (who account for the majority of voters in South Africa) while needing to protect the business interests of their core constituency and funders.

Does the DA really want to see workers’ rights upheld and employment for our youth? Their actions seem to contradict this fact. Still struggling to break the shackles of the old DP and NP from their image, they are constantly putting their foot in it. Making references to “professional blacks” and “refugees” is not a very strategic way to woo black voters is it? But it seems like the next battle will be attempting to construct an identity which is both pro-worker and pro-business. Perhaps Cosatu head Zwelinzima Vavi wasn’t “dreaming” when he said the DA wanted him to join their party. Would a trade unionist somehow then give the DA the working class credentials they so desperately crave?

Maybe the grandstanding and political theatre which we witnessed at Cosatu house a few days ago was the next best available option.

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