The Congress of South African Trade Unions welcomes many of the positive measures announced in President Zuma's State of the Nation Address, based on his commitment to continue with a programme of action to eradicate poverty, inequality and unemployment, in line with the five priorities that the ANC adopted in its 2009 manifesto - education, health, the fight against crime and corruption, creating decent work and rural development and land reform. This is our brief response to all of the critical areas:
Creating decent work
It is good to hear that from 2009 to the end of March this year, government will have spent about R860 billion on infrastructure, including improvements to water and transport provision. This should be starting to bring new jobs on stream.
Many do not appreciate that spending these amounts of money on infrastructure at the time when many governments are resorting to stringent austerity measures, is a very progressive development for South Africa. Infrastructure spending will go a long way in assisting our economy to better respond to what every economist recognises as the biggest and deepest economic crisis to have been witnessed by humankind.
South Africa could not escape the devastating impact of this crisis, and we lost over 1 million jobs as a result, from which we are still to fully recover. Without this intervention we believe the economy will be even deeper difficulty than it is.
The overall framework articulated by the President on decent work was not impressive. To start with, the President, unlike in previous speeches, did not even refer to the decent work agenda. The speech did not mention once the labour brokering problem or recognise the poverty wages and the need to speedily implement the government's New Growth Path in terms of an incomes policy to address not only poverty wages but deepening income inequalities. We shall take up his offer to "engage business, labour and other social partners in pursuit of solutions".
We are worried that the National Development Plan (NDP) is increasingly being elevated to the status of the Freedom Charter. It appears that every government policy including the New Growth Path is being subordinated to the NDP.
COSATU argues that there have been no adequate debates in the Alliance about the NDP. Whilst we welcome the stated objectives of the NDP we are extremely concerned that as a programme it leans more towards solutions in policy terms that have been historically advocated by the pro-business lobby.
The President's acknowledgement "that where the state intervenes strongly and consistently, it can turn key industries around..." supports COSATU's belief in an interventionist state
We had hoped that the President would reinforce the desperate need to unapologetically move the country towards a more radical transformation of the economy to ensure that our freedom does not only mean that around our necks there will be political medals whilst the economic jewellery resides with a small minority of capitalists.
Almost all the meetings that were held by the movement towards the ANC 53rd National Conference were characterised by a rallying towards a radical second phase of our transition, captured in the Policy Conference thus:
"The challenges of poverty and inequality require that accelerated growth takes place in the context of an effective strategy of redistribution that builds a new and more equitable growth path. Over the last 18 years significant progress has been made in meeting basic needs of our people, including through the growth of the social wage, the provision of social infrastructure and the redistribution of income. However, the redistribution of economic assets and ownership, the democratisation of economic power, the empowerment of black people, women and workers, and the growth of job creating industries have not met the expectations we had 18 years ago.
"Therefore, as an integral part of the second phase of our transition from apartheid to a national democratic society, we need to intensify our programme of economic transformation".
It is disappointing that the speech did not adequately confront the massive problems of poverty and inequality, which, together with unemployment, constitute the triple economic crisis facing the country.
In reality, as he himself concedes, it is merely a "roadmap", which gives us a beautiful "vision" of the country over the next 20 years, at the end of which all South Africans "will have water, electricity, sanitation, jobs, housing, public transport, adequate nutrition, education, social protection, quality healthcare, recreation and a clean environment".
Of course we support such a vision, but we insist that the IPAP and NGP are far better at recognising and dealing with the biggest challenge we face at the economic level, which is changing the structural fault lines and moving away from a growth path we inherited that simply reproduces unemployment, poverty and inequalities. We call for a discussion on this matter in the alliance sooner rather than later.
COSATU applauds the President's clear statement that government's measures to tackle the massive crisis of youth unemployment will be those agreed between constituencies at NEDLAC on which discussions have been concluded, and agreement reached on key principles, which do not include the discredited Youth Wage Subsidy.
The Federation also welcomes the creation of a Presidential Commission to investigate employment conditions of public service workers. We believe that the Commission will reveal that many public servants are struggling to make ends meet and in particular the commission will show that it is scandalous that all public servants have no acceptable housing subsidy scheme, with government only paying a meagre R900 a month which is wholly inadequate. As a result many public sector workers are in that middle gap identified in the 2011 SONA - earning too much to be subsidized by the state to get RDP houses but too poor to be covered by the banks.
COSATU welcomes the President's assurance that "by saying education is an essential service we are not taking away the Constitutional rights of teachers as workers such as the right to strike", and fully endorses his view that "we want the education sector and society as a whole to take education more seriously than is happening currently".
We also happy that the President acknowledged the progress we have registered, including higher matriculant pass rates and improvements in the ANA results. We welcome the building of 98 schools by March to replace mud schools.
COSATU would have however liked the President to go further in acknowledging the remaining challenges we face. As long as education leaks in the manner that it does, and as long as we continue to lose 16-19 year-old from the system, we will not address the structural nature of the unemployment crisis. The President also missed the opportunity to show that indeed education is essential; he should have announced steps to be taken against those behind the failure to deliver books to Limpopo and other provinces children for the greater part of 2012.
COSATU is thrilled at the progressive introduction of the National Health Insurance. We are happy that the President gave us further assurance that the government is determined to introduce this historic intervention, with the setting up of the National Health Insurance Fund by 2014. We welcome the fact "that the first group of 600 private medical practitioners will be contracted to provide medical services at 533 clinics within villages and townships."
The NHI will not succeed if we do not address pockets of health crisis, in particular the crisis unfolding in Gauteng. COSATU will be taking up a campaign to ensure that the SIU produces the report commissioned by President Kgalema Motlanthe on corruption and maladministration in the Department of Health in Gauteng.
Rural Development - food security and agrarian reform
On land reform it is good that the concept of "willing buyer, willing seller" will be replaced by the "just and equitable" principle for compensation, and that we will shorten the time to finalise claims. In this, the centenary year of the racist 1913 Natives Land Act, this must be implemented urgently.
Again here we hope the Minister responsible will go far to show us what progress has been achieved to liberate our people from the rural areas, in particular the former Bantustans, who remain trapped in dehumanising squalor and grinding poverty. We note that the meeting held by Deputy President Motlanthe with both farmers and farm workers in Paarl agreed that ... "the living and working conditions of farm workers should be improved urgently".
Our country remains far from achieving food security. Increasingly more and more people not only in the rural areas but also in the urban informal settlements are spending more nights without adequate and nutritious food.
Fighting Crime and Corruption
There is some encouraging news on the war against corruption, with the President's report that the capacity of the Special Investigating Unit has grown from 70 staff members to more than 600, that he has signed 34 proclamations directing the SIU to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud or maladministration in various government departments and state entities, and that criminal investigations were initiated against 203 accused persons in 67 priority cases under investigation by the end September 2012. Still more needs to be done however.
COSATU welcomes the President's strong condemnation of the "brutality and cruelty meted out to defenceless women" as highlighted by the rape and murder of Anene Booysen, and his direction to law enforcement agencies to treat these cases with the utmost urgency and importance". The trade union movement pledges its total support for the national campaign to rid South Africa of this drive to eradicate this scourge.
Finally, we welcome the President's firm commitment to solidarity with Cuba, Palestine and Western Sahara and are especially encouraged with his President's firm call for the lifting of the economic embargo against Cuba.