Rudderless ANC fiddles and rows as farms burn

The comment of the week must be that Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant “sounds more like the minister of farmers instead of the minister of labour”. It did not come from the parliamentary opposition, but from none other than the former ANC mayoral candidate for Cape Town, Tony Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich is deeply rooted in the ruling party. He is the Western Cape regional secretary of Cosatu. He is leader of the opposition in the Cape Town metropolitan council. And he is popular on the ground. That is why his summation of the performance of his own party’s labour minister is so devastating.

There is something wrong in the ruling alliance. Long gone is the political discipline that characterised president Thabo Mbeki’s era. The latter trucked no nonsense. He would definitely not have tolerated a minister of agriculture pledging to farmworkers that they would not be prosecuted for their violent and criminal actions during the recent Western Cape farm strikes. Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson tried to backtrack subsequently, but even Oliphant this week said she did not know why her colleague had made such a pledge. The ruling party doesn’t know whether it is Tony or Tina, Trevor or Lindiwe, or Arthur or Martha.

It goes to the core of the party’s identity. It doesn’t know whether it believes in the national democratic revolution, or in the Harvard-inspired economic orthodoxy of the National Development Plan. It does not know whether it is following Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s deeply sensible fiscal policies, or whether the economy should be controlled by a junta purporting to represent the people. It probably didn’t know where its political and economic ballasts were even when Mbeki was in power.

While Mbeki also spoke about national democratic revolutions, but then implemented counter-cyclical Keynsian economic policies, he would not have stomached party members – let alone cabinet ministers – speaking out in contradiction of others.

The broad church culture of the ANC is not an ideal mix for any political leader to manage. The official opposition has a much easier ride because it is built on a free-market foundation and purports, at least, to believe in the liberal pursuit of truth. But the ANC is at war with itself.

Part of the party believes in nationalisation. Part of it believes a much bigger state stake is required in the economy. Others believe that some privatisation and greater oversight over the state’s activities is required. However, there is not much capacity within the party to deliver the public goodies, let alone the oversight capacity.

So it is with the violence on the farms. Any sensible person would agree that R69 a day is slave labour. Yet it was the Employment Conditions Commission – representing labour, business and the government – which recommended that minimum wage.

Oliphant got into hot water for pointing out that the determination lasted for a year until April. Therefore, the minimum wage could not be hiked immediately. Hence Ehrenreich’s remark. But he also noted the irony that the union movement was partly responsible for that wage determination.

The scene is set for more conflict from December 4. The Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union is holding a mass meeting in Ashton this Sunday. It said in a statement: “If farmers refuse to meet our demands (of R150 a day) or undertake mass retrenchments, the necessary redistribution of land under workers’ control must take place”.

As the warning bells ring, the ruling alliance squabbles, unable to give direction.