President of Cosatu Zingiswa Losi. Picture: THULANI MBELE / SOWETAN
President of Cosatu Zingiswa Losi. Picture: THULANI MBELE / SOWETAN

Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi on Thursday rallied behind president Cyril Ramaphosa in a move that could take some steam from the storm that is brewing between public-sector unions and the government, over plans to cut the state wage bill.

In his budget speech on Wednesday, finance minister Tito Mboweni announced plans to cut the public-sector wage bill by R160bn over the next three years. The government spends about R600bn on salaries and this represents 35% of its annual spending. The finance minister said a salary freeze had been put in place for all public representatives, including cabinet ministers and MPs.

This move has drawn the ire of the unions with Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla saying the government was taking a gamble as the plan on wages could lead to a strike. “If push comes to shove we will have to fight,” Pamla said on Wednesday.

Ramaphosa addressed the federation's central executive committee meeting on Monday but “he didn’t talk about a bloated wage bill or public service”, said Losi. She commended Ramaphosa for listening to the labour federation on some areas, noting, however, that “he gets to be contested” on some key labour issues.

“We appreciate that we may not win everything,” said Losi, during a media briefing on Thursday.

In a media statement distributed at the briefing Cosatu said: “We will not allow the workers to be used as a scapegoat for this economic crisis. These cuts directed at the public service will have severe implications for the economy.”

The labour federation was not happy that the tripartite alliance “still has limited influence on what happens in government”, and stressed that the ongoing public sector dispute and Mboweni’s budget “clearly demonstrates this”.

Losi also read the riot act to ministers within President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet and senior members of the governing party, calling on them to give Ramaphosa space to lead.

She said her federation was getting confused by the different voices coming from the party and cabinet on what to do with loss-making national carrier SAA, warning ministers not to encroach on each other's portfolios.

Mboweni, who allocated the airline a budget of R16.4bn over the medium term, has previously said SAA must be closed down and sold.

The state-owned airline, which has received more than R20.5bn of fiscal support over the past three years, was placed in business rescue in December to try to rehabilitate it into a sustainable business.

The airline’s business rescue practitioners recently announced that SAA would cancel all domestic flights, except for a reduced service to Cape Town, as well as some international and regional flights, at the end of February in a bid to cut costs.

This was criticised by Ramaphosa, unions and premiers of the Eastern Cape Oscar Mabuyane and KwaZulu-Natal Sihle Zikalala, while public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan said SAA was not too big to fail.

Mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe, addressing an ANC birthday rally in the Eastern Cape on February 8, called for SAA to be sold to private buyers if it were unable to generate a profit.

Mantashe, who is the ANC’s national chair, described SAA as an elitist airline that did not serve the interests of the working class.

On Thursday, Losi made it clear the federation did not appreciate the contesting voices on SAA.

Without mentioning Mantashe or anyone by name, Losi criticised a “minister that crosses over to another ministry” to state that SAA must be sold. “The president must be given space to lead SA and his organisation [the ANC],” she said.

Cosatu is a key ally of president Ramaphosa and was the first ANC-aligned structure to support his candidacy for the position of ANC president during the party’s national elective conference in December 2017.

Losi was on Ramaphosa’s slate during the contest and lost her contest for ANC deputy secretary-general position to incumbent Jessie Duarte.

She said: “When the president sits with his cabinet and there are decisions that are taken, you expect ministers to follow suit [and not contradict him]. The president must be allowed to lead.”

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za