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Media Centre  |  COSATU Press Statements

Zwelinzima Vavi interview with Financial Times, London


Transcript: Zwelinzima Vavi, head of COSATU

Financial Times, (London), 12 December 2007

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, COSATU, has played a central role in reviving the political fortunes of Jacob Zuma, the former Vice President, ahead of African National Congress elections starting on Sunday. With COSATU's support, Mr Zuma is no w in pole position to win leadership of the movement, which would put him in a strong position to succeed Thabo Mbeki as South Africa's president. Zwelinzima Vavi, the head of COSATU, has been one of Mr Zuma's most important allies. William Wallis, FT Afri ca editor, and Alec Russell, FT Southern Africa Correspondent interviewed Mr Vavi in COSATU headquarters in Johannesburg on Wednesday December 12th, 2007.

Financial Times: Parts of the business community are afraid of you and of the influence you could have over government policy as it unfolds. Should they be afraid?

Zwelinzima Vavi: Not at all. Those who have worked close with me have absolutely nothing to fear. They will know that I feel very, very strongly about economic injustices and about unemployment. They know that I have strong views about what needs to be don e. But they know that I am a strong believer in engagement and I will never, ever propose hard unilateral actions that disregard the reasonable fears of the business community.

FT: What does need to be done?

ZV: If the world belonged to me I would say everything stops and all we need is a discussion about how to address the crisis of unemployment in South Africa, about how to close the gap between the rich and the poor and deal with the huge inequalities that exist. We need to get this nation into a national debate and ask if the existing policies have worked.

One of the problems with existing policies is that they are renowned to be working. We are in the longest period of economic growth in South Africa's history, and I appreciate that. It gives a signal to everybody that we can manage the economy. But I am ab solutely frustrated that we have seen jobless growth, that economic growth has not helped us really dent unemployment. Many economists are beginning to doubt whether we are going to be able to meet even the modest objectives set by the government to halve unemployment and poverty by 2014. That is what worries us. And there is no national discussion about that, which worries me even more, because there is so much intolerance. If you dare say there is a problem you are likely to have your bona fide's question ed.

FT: You say there needs to be a national debate. Who should be involved in that?

ZV: The ANC members and the business community, the alliance and everybody who is a role player. There is no such discussion now.

FT: What in your view then needs to be changed about economic policy in South Africa?

ZV: We think that this flirtation with neo-liberal policies in 1996&has been absolutely disastrous for our development. We think that it is scandalous that we are only having a proposed industrial policy in 2007, in the thirteenth year of democracy, meanin g that all along we were walking in a big, big dangerous zone of globalisation without a map.

We allowed the marketers to take charge of important departments and all they knew was that South Africa had to be exposed to the chilly winds of competition. They cut tariffs even faster than was required by the World Trade Organization. In the process th ey undermined the engine of growth itself, the manufacturing sector. We are a developing country. We ought to develop our industries first. We are now reaping the fruits of that.

Where manufacturing has been able to compete for example with the motor industry, it has been because of interventions&

We should have deliberately shifted the economy away from capital-intensive sectors to labour intensive sectors. We should have looked at more processing, food. We should have looked at issues of infrastructure, at beneficiation of mineral resources. We sh ould have looked at many things of that kind. We didn't and I think we will pay.

We have this massive financial sector that is internationally competitive, we have these big chemical plants, and we have this mining industry. Unfortunately this mining industry is not labour intensive. The chemical plants are not labour intensive. That's why you have an economy that grows but doesn't create sufficient employment.

FT: But it's too late presumably to start reversing tariff cuts?

ZV: You can't reverse tariff cuts. Those losses are done. You have to adjust the economy to that reality. You are not going to go back to the WTO and say sorry we offered you so much. But together with the South African government we have played an importa nt role, with social movements in other parts of the world, to say that no, the WTO cannot worsen the situation by forcing yet another steep round of cuts on tariffs in South Africa in exchange for moderate accommodation on the demands of developing countr ies for access on agricultural products. We are aware of the danger of any further steep tariff cuts to the South African economy.

FT: The Finance minister Trevor Manuel is seen abroad as a man who has delivered fiscal discipline and macro-economic stability. What is your assessment of his record?

ZV: You are asking me a difficult question. I like him as a friend. But I don't agree with his economic stance. I think it has been a disaster for the country. I like the fact that he is a professional, that he is a black person who made all of us very pro ud, that he's a black man, with all the scepticism that they can never do this.

But we don't like the policies he has been pushing. When I talk about marketers having a hand on industrial policy of the country, he was in charge. This issue of tariff reduction happened under his instruction. We don't like the fiscal monetary policies h e has pursued.

We don't like the fact that we are boasting about a budget surplus as a developing country that has so many challenges. How do you defend a surplus, which has 38 percent unemployment with half of the country living in poverty? Whichever way you look we are one of the worst countries in terms of inequalities.

The work that is going on in town for 2010 [World Cup], the question we are asking why did we need to wait, why did we need external motivation when you have so much deprivation among your own people. The danger is that when 2010 is over it will go back to business as usual. It can't be.

We should be spending money on those things (housing, infrastructure etc.) massively but responsibly. But Trevor sometimes says when we make these arguments, that we want to take South Africa to Zimbabwe. No. We are not asking for hyperinflation, for unaff ordable deficits. But we are saying money ought to be spent and invested correctly. On infrastructure, supporting industry with the goal of creating jobs. It's like we want to be Europe. We are happy to be celebrated that we have an inflation target of 3 t o 6 per cent. We are happy to be celebrated that we have a surplus and a zero deficit.

I don't think we should be celebrating these things. Any developmental economists would be extremely worried that a country facing such huge development challenges, boasts fiscal targets comparable to Europe, Europe, which has 2 to 4 percent unemployment w hen we have 38 percent.

FT: How much of your agenda would you expect to see followed through if the leadership of the ANC and the country changes?

ZV: We have invested so much on these issues and taken so much political risk not because we are crazy. Its because of these issues we think the political environment in this country has become so negative. People are afraid to express their views without attracting a counter punch that says you are racist, leftist, or have infantile disorders.

A society that doesn't debate inevitably relies on too few minds. If you allow that culture to deepen you are on the way to dictatorship. That's what needs to be changed.

FT: How do you square the fact that in recent months Mr Zuma has been reassuring the business community that nothing major will change, with your major concerns and heartfelt desire to see fundamental change? Is there not a punch up looming?

ZV: Zuma has been right to go out of his way to assure businesses that he doesn't have Zuma policies, that the ANC has processes, and a collective leadership and policies do not depend on the whims of one individual, the president. He has been demonised te rribly by the media. They created a monster out of him. White South Africans and other minority [think] that he is a devil with horns and a tail, who will rape, and take populist actions, who will not think, who is stupid. It was right for him to cut the w edge and speak to the investors directly and to say talk to me directly and see I don't have the horns and a tail.

At the same time I feel that you need to assure the marginalized, the 38 percent unemployed, the women who suffer the most, the young people who suffer most from poverty and unemployment, that their plight will be made a priority in the future, that someon e will listen to their cry.

While I support the need for him to go out and assure people, the biggest guarantor of stability is to give South Africa hope for the future. Once they have lost hope and think their issues have been put on the back burner permanently then you will have in stability.

The ANC, while we can register some progress it has not been good enough. Unemployment is a national emergency. People should have been fired a long time ago if they have not delivered progress towards job creation. The Finance minister should have been to ld that you should not adopt policies that undermine possibility of growth of unemployment.

FT: Will there be any place for people like Trevor Manuel in a new administration, if Mr Zuma wins?

ZV: Certainly he is efficient. You don't want to lose that. But if the policy conference resolutions are adopted that is a new mandate. Politicians ought to work according to the mandate they receive from their constituents, not from their own ideological positions.

FT: Are you hoping to serve in a future cabinet?

ZV: No. I have said I would not as a matter of principle. I can't afford to be a minister without COSATU losing all its credibility among workers. The first general secretary ended up a minister&The next general secretary became the premier. People started to say this is a trend. If I go the same route the next general secretary will never have credibility. Workers will say this is how they all do. They are militant to raise their political profile to further their own ends. I wouldn't. I don't even want a business post. I will want to do something else. I don't know what yet because I don't want to lose focus on my job.

FT: You have been very close supporter of Mr Zuma and played a major role in helping his campaign. How close are you ideologically to Mr Zuma?

ZV: It is the workers who for the first time demonstrated against what they perceived to be the denial of his rights and use of state institutions against him. They demonstrated against that in 2003 in a big way. And since then in my view if it was not bec ause of that COSATU conference in 2003 Zuma would either be in prison or in his home-town. The fact that workers stood up and agitated will go down in his own book that it was workers who said you don't do this to a human being. 2005 the ANC members took i t up. It has been one song since then.

The nominations reflect anger and the desire to change the political environment.

Ideologically and otherwise, Zuma we like him because the fellow has some natural gifts: down to earth, humane, accessible. He is by nature a unifier. We have never seen Zuma be angry against anyone. He laughs off the most provocative statements made again st him. He will never throw tantrums& We see ourselves in him, not a high flying intellectual, arrogant who will not listen to anyone.

When we say we support him we are not seeing him as a messiah who will solve all our problems. What we are looking for is one thing only: the political space to put forward alternative views and to be listened to. We do honestly believe that when that spac e is created for members of the ANC they will be a better chance for people to be receptive to alternative suggestions.

FT: Would you like to see a big change to South Africa's policy to Zimbabwe?

ZV: You know we have been hard pressing our government to do something more. We like that fact that we [South Africa] has been appointed by the SADC to be facilitators of the current negotiations. Like in an economy you judge a government through results n ot through endless discussions that seem to be going nowhere. I am worried about whether even this intervention is going to resolve the issues there. I suspect that the opposition because it is weak, it has weakened itself and allowed itself to be divided may just be exhausted and wanting a solution and hoping that there is so much groundswell against Mugabe...

Those things we have been raising they have not been dealt with. There are still restrictions on the press. We have not seen any change into terms of police beating up people demonstrating, workers are still under siege, they can't even demonstrate. Now ev en if they call for stay aways, who will risk a job a wage for a full day when I am told up to eighty percent of people's income goes to transport. So the environment is so bad I doubt you will have free and fair elections next year.

FT: Given that do you think it is time for South Africa to wield more of a stick, to be tougher with Mugabe?

ZV: We should have given him very, very stern indications some time ago that we must act like democrats, allow people to have views, to demonstrate to exercise their basic freedoms or else we will have to teach you a lesson& I don't think that he got that signal, not at all. That's why he continues to think he can do exactly what he did five years ago.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

From: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e36a72a2-a8cf-11dc-ad9e-0000779fd2ac.html