File photo: Adrian de Kock

What puzzles people outside trade union federation Cosatu is why the movement treats its alliance partner, the ANC, as if it were the government of PW Botha.

If there is one area of growth in the economy it is demonstrations and marches – many of them aimed at government. A Cosatu official warned on Friday that the day’s anti e-tolling demonstration was just the start – many more were planned, he said gleefully.

This is a continuation of a long trend. Rather than vote its alliance partner out of power, for implementing policies of which it disapproves, the trade union movement prefers action on the streets. And the action often turns violent whether or not the party officials want it that way.

Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus made a useful point about action last week. Referring to the failure of Limpopo province to deliver textbooks to all its schools, she asked: “If textbook weren’t delivered, why didn’t someone fetch them? You talk of action: that’s action!”

Marcus told the pre-national bargaining conference of the National Union of Metal Workers of SA (Numsa): “We can organise buses for all sorts of events. We can get on a bus and fetch the textbooks. That to me is action.” This comment goes to the heart of South Africa’s problems. Too many of us miss the opportunity to take constructive action.

The country’s dysfunctional education system is the biggest drag on our society, on the economy, on its potential to provide decent jobs – any jobs – for the growing army of the unemployed. And something that makes the system less dysfunctional would be a major contribution to society, the economy, to the future.

Education is the real path to liberation.

But many activists – and trade unions are the biggest culprits – prefer the colour and excitement of marching and singing in the streets. It gives them a rush. Fetching desperately needed textbooks for children just wouldn’t do it for them.

Where does the people power come from for the endless mass action? As the protestors are presumably Cosatu members, they have jobs. What happens to their jobs while they attend gatherings, march in the streets or obstruct traffic on the highways?

Not only are they not contributing to the economy; they are subtracting from its growth potential. If investors and rating agencies are constantly exposed to images of unruly, disruptive behaviour, they will react.

As Marcus pointed out to the Numsa conference, whether we like rating agencies or not, their opinions count. A downgrade means higher interest costs to government and less left over for social and productive spending.

“I’m not saying we intend to shoot ourselves in the foot,” Marcus said. “I’m saying some of the things we do show we have not dealt with some of our organisational capacity (problems). The education of our children should be our biggest priority,” she said and asked what role the unions would play to ensure that children get the education they deserve.

But Cosatu is otherwise occupied – including its affiliate the SA Democratic Teachers Union which might be expected to feel some sense of responsibility for the children entrusted to its members.

Cosatu can’t pull the votes needed to launch its own party, so the federation’s immediate concern is keeping a high profile in the political landscape. Perhaps we can’t expect anything else from an organisation that doesn’t have the muscle memory to behave constructively.