Traffic passes outside Luthuli House in the Johannesburg CBD. File picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Jeremy Cronin says Helen Zille’s plan to march on Luthuli House is as ill-conceived as Julius Malema’s Nkandla trip in light of her party’s double standard on public work programmes.

In her mid-term review in November, the DA’s City of Cape Town mayor, Patricia de Lille, told the media her “biggest success was in creating 37 000 Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) jobs for people who were employed temporarily in various city projects” (Cape Times, November 21).

Last week, DA leader Helen Zille announced her intention to lead a march on Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters in Johannesburg.

Intriguingly, the purpose of the march, according to Zille’s statement, was to “expose Jacob Zuma’s (ANC election) manifesto promise of 6 million ‘work opportunities’ as bogus”.

So what makes the promise bogus? “These are not real jobs”, Zille tells us. “They are temporary public works placements that will do little to grow the economy and lift people out of poverty permanently and sustainably.”

Clearly, the DA mayor and the DA premier are radically at odds here.

The one sees her most important mayoral achievement as the provision of tens of thousands of temporary public works jobs. The other dismisses these projects in principle as “bogus”. What accounts for the blatant contradiction?

Part of the explanation obviously has to do with Zille’s pursuit of an attention-seeking election stunt – any pretext will do. If Julius Malema, plus bodyguards, plus a handful of followers can go to Nkandla, why shouldn’t Zille march on Luthuli House?

I’ll leave it to others to judge the wisdom of the proposed march. Many in the DA are clearly less than convinced of its merits. I do want to say that we should practise political tolerance in our democracy and, in any case, over-reaction from the ANC will simply play into the hands of those seeking attention.

What needs deeper examination is the glaring contradiction between De Lille’s justifiable pride in achieving 37 000 EPWP work opportunities in Cape Town and Zille’s haughty and discordant dismissal of these public employment programmes.

In the first place, Zille is less than honest when she claims that Zuma (she personalises the matter) is once more “misleading” South Africans. Nowhere in the ANC election manifesto is it claimed that the targeted six million EPWP “work opportunities” over the next five years will be formal-sector jobs or permanent.

With high unemployment endemic, even in many advanced economies, political commentator Professor Steven Friedman was recently spot on when he debunked the illusion that only formal sector, waged employment should be regarded as “work”.

Millions of South Africans and billions around the world are excluded from waged work. This does not mean these billions are (or have to be) unproductive.

Zille’s statement claims that public works programmes “will do little to grow the economy”. This betrays a market fundamentalism. Implicit in this fundamentalism is that labour that is not a waged commodity does not perform “real work”, and what it produces has little value. This is an assumption increasingly in question internationally. GDP statistics do not capture the economic contribution of volunteer work, for instance, or the unpaid home and child-care work loaded onto women. The huge value embedded in our natural ecosystems is also not reflected in GDP accounting. But the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources – through mining or over-fishing, for instance – is happily totted up in the positive growth column.

Clearly, we have to think about what is of economic and social value in different ways. Recent CSIR research estimates that the Working for Water EPWP programme has contributed billions of rand worth of value (unrecorded in our GDP statistics) through increasing water resources by removing invasive alien plants. The real value of our public employment programmes needs to be assessed in terms of social impact. What happens after a work opportunity to the participants? What is the impact on marginalised communities when community members help construct and maintain assets, or provide desperately needed services like home-based care, school feeding, early childhood caring or neighbourhood safety?

I think that we can do much better in terms of monitoring and evaluating these developmental impacts of the EPWP programme, as well as improving the synergies between them and other government and NGO initiatives – including adult training in community colleges, and co-operative and small and micro-business development.

Zille dismisses public employment programmes on the grounds that they will not “lift people out of poverty permanently and sustainably”. This is akin to the all-or-nothing reasoning once advanced by the PAC for boycotting the Codesa negotiations. The PAC secretary-general of the time explained “there is no way negotiation can be regarded as a panacea for our social malaise. Therefore it will fail.”

Zille’s rejectionism, based on a similar panacea yardstick (“permanently and sustainably” forever) is no better. Of course, public employment programmes on their own are not the total solution to unemployment or poverty. But they are making an important contribution to social development. How do we improve on their impact? How do we ensure better synergies with other job-creating and sustainable livelihood strategies?

And (a final rhetorical question) aren’t these the issues we should be debating thoughtfully, instead of embarking upon an ill-considered, attention-seeking march?

* Jeremy Cronin is the Deputy Minister of Public Works. He was a Member of Parliament and is the Deputy General-Secretary of the SA Communist Party.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Indepent Newspapers.

Cape Times