My vote is with the strikers

2010-09-06 00:00

THE old woman is a pain. She hovers at the traffic lights near the entrance of the local supermarket, waiting for them to turn red and trap the occupants of cars in immobility, and then pounces, tapping the window mercilessly. Sometimes I give in, sometimes I don’t. It depends on my mood.

That choice defines the difference between us. Her life imprisons her in daily dependency on the goodwill of others. In my life, I select from options and opportunities that span the past and future. But we’re both locals and our lives intersect regularly at those lights. Between us are a multitude of different people: sturdy farm and domestic workers, efficient and tidy office workers, teachers, nurses, law enforcers and municipal workers. The truth is that the striking workers confront us with the uncomfortable bridge that lies between the extremes of poverty and wealth that characterise the old woman’s life and mine and our country generally.

I do not like the idea of bodies rotting in a mortuary. The idea of a once-loved person (or even unloved one) becoming the object of strikers’ fury violates basic values. I like even less the idea of pathetic, disabled children lying in stinking nappies, pregnant women anxious about their ARVs and matriculants panicking about their futures. And my gut resists the notion of collateral damage. But let’s stop a moment and ask an age-old question: what is to be done?

What is to be done about the growing inequality, not just in South Africa, but in the world? This is an inequality that impacts directly and severely on the poor, on what (or whether) they eat, on the possibility of growing food, getting a job or creating self-employment. I am not talking about a few raggedy street children or the homeless who mess up the pavement outside the museum every night. I’m talking about what Mike Davis in Planet of Slums calls the one-billion strong, fastest-growing and “most unprecedented social class on Earth”. South Africa’s contribution to this class is the “marginal working class” and the “dispossessed jobless” who together make up 41% of the population and take home 10% of the income. Stop for one second and ask yourself: what do they eat every day?

Their situation is not disconnected from that of the wealthy. As the global economy spreads its tentacles into every corner of the Earth, so the price of food staples, maize and wheat, and anything one might need to grow on any scale, slips beyond the control of the local supermarket or co-operative and of any national government (those of Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma included). The maize price in Pietermaritzburg reflects the United States government’s subsidisation of its maize growers and the diversion of their overproduction into feed for the industrial production of poultry, pork and beef across the world to feed the insatiable consumption of meat by the global rich. The price reflects too the monopoly of intellectual property rights over seed, chemicals and technology that has come close to destroying agriculture across Africa, warranting one researcher after another to comment on the withdrawal from agriculture that is taking place. This is not because “farming is hard” — it’s because farming and its alternative food cost money, money poor people do not have because the conditions do not exist for secure employment or self-employment.

The old woman on the corner will not change this reality. Whether my mood permits me to give her the money she needs on any day will not change this reality. It’s not clear what will. But if I have to choose, then my vote is with Cosatu and the strikers, who may be able to force an increasingly corrupt and patronising government into working more efficiently, raising taxes, and controlling the violent effects of a global capitalism gone mad. How much is enough?

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