Insisting on the need to impose a “working-class hegemony”, Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu’s secretary-general, has suggested that policy should be determined by the alliance, not the government. “We are the policymakers,” he said, “and the government implements. The government doesn’t lead any more.” He clearly did not mean to restrict this to trade-union matters, either. To the chagrin of foreign investors, Cosatu tried in May to block the multi-billion rand sale of Vodacom, South Africa’s state-owned mobile-phone operator, to Britain’s Vodafone; the courts blocked its bid. More recently Cosatu has been demanding the nationalisation of mines, the abandonment of inflation targeting by the central bank, and the removal of its respected governor, Tito Mboweni.
Officially, nearly one in four South Africans is now jobless; the real number is probably nearer one in three. Inflation is running at 8%. The cost of food and fuel has risen particularly fast. It is harder than ever for the poor majority to get by.
It is now winter in South Africa. In the shanty towns around the big cities, people are cold as well as hungry. Their president promised that the drive to eradicate poverty would be the cornerstone of his new government’s policies. The millions who live in leaky shacks without electricity or running water, surrounded by unlit streets rife with crime, know that these conditions cannot change overnight. But many are impatient. This week police in Johannesburg’s Thokoza township had to fire rubber bullets and squirt tear gas to disperse stone-throwing protesters railing against unemployment and the government’s failure to deliver services.