ANC Secretary General, Ace Magashule. Picture: MASI LOSI
ANC Secretary General, Ace Magashule. Picture: MASI LOSI

In one of its darkest hours — and for once Eskom is not at fault — the country could at least bask in the idea of national unity and that we were all pulling together towards the same goal. And then ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and his counterparts in Cosatu and the SACP had to come in and disabuse us of such naiveté.

Though a national lockdown of three weeks was hardly going to be something the country was going to be universally excited about, President Cyril Ramaphosa has rightly been praised for at least showing some decisive leadership. Reports by influential international organisations such as the BBC have been glowing. When was the last time we were compared favourably to countries such as the UK, the US and even Sweden?

The implementation hasn’t by any means been perfect and some of the rules have defied logic. There are stories about soldiers and police overstepping the mark and abusing citizens for allegedly not complying with the regulations. Some ministers — Fikile Mbalula, Lindiwe Zulu and Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams come to mind — are clearly competing to see who is the weakest link.

But, overall, the president is doing a good job in a difficult situation. And for once he has looked like a man in command not just of the situation but also of his party. I suppose if you are Magashule, you can’t let that last too long.

The statement he co-wrote with other members of the “Secretariat of the Revolutionary Alliance”,  the SACP’s Solly Mapaila and Cosatu’s Bheki Ntshalintshali, isn’t all bad. Who could argue against the need to ensure adequate protective equipment for health workers or decisive action against the reported spike in domestic violence?

It starts going wrong when they get to the economy. The attacks on finance minister Tito Mboweni and the Reserve Bank were as uninformed as they were predictable. How dare the minister even mention getting any sort of help from the IMF, with its implied loss of sovereignty. But the comrades are enthusiastic for “mutually beneficial assistance with China and Russia”, which presumably would come with no such loss of sovereignty. How naive does one need to be?

They resurrected another bad idea, recommending that the government “should evaluate and explore all sources of domestic finance, including industrial retirement funds”. In other words, prescribed assets.

Cosatu has done a good job of convincing some of its members that raiding pensions overseen by the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) would be a painless and costless exercise as these have a guarantee from the state, which is presumed to have a boundless ability to pay.

One can only wonder what story Ntshalintshali has for his members who belong to private company pension funds. By and large these are defined-contribution funds, meaning that the gamble here will be with members’ savings: they put money into a pot and what they get at the end of their working life is based on how much that pool grows.

When the National Party did prescribed assets, most funds were run on a defined-benefits basis. Workers got their pension payouts irrespective of fund performance, so in effect the money in question was paid out by the employer.

In today’s world, when funds are pushed into investments that produce inferior returns, it is the workers who will ultimately pay in the form of reduced payouts in their retirement. It doesn’t sound like an option that should appeal to a union federation that has workers’ interests at heart.

Mboweni has made it clear that the kind of assistance he was talking about would be specifically targeted  at health interventions to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak, not the type that comes with structural adjustment conditionality. Even if it did, surely that would be preferable to trashing workers’ savings?

But then that statement had nothing to do with the interests of workers or the country. It was all about politics. Perhaps it was good for the country to be reminded, lest complacency sets in, that the ANC’s destructive factional politics are never far away, no matter how much we’d like to think we are moving on together.