A haunted country

2013-07-05 00:00

JOHN Daniel introduces this annual overview of the state of the nation with a blunt assertion: Nearly 20 years after liberation there is a sense of foreboding. South Africa is haunted by too much continuity from the past; and suffers from growing authoritarianism and a confusion of radically different views about the way forward. So much for the supposed end of history trumpeted by conservative theorists at the end of the Cold War nearly a quarter of a century ago.

The key chapter of this book was written on labour economics by Dick Forslund. Slating the orthodoxy invariably projected through the mainline media with its slavish support for corporate consensus, he argues for wage-led development. In other words, he makes a case for higher wages. Profit, he explains, is not automatically good for the economy. The current trend is towards increased company profit at the expense of wages and union influence. Some of the growing surplus is creatively invested. But increasing proportions of this national wealth find their way into private hands and are withheld from the economy or siphoned overseas. Forslund calculates that in mining, the wage share fell from 43% to 35% in the first decade of the century, a staggering loss of R89 billion to workers. For most of them, wage packets have remained stagnant, while managerial salaries have skyrocketed.

As Martin Nicol subsequently argues, deep-level, hard-rock mining for gold and platinum is labour intensive, skilled and dangerous, and vital to the nation’s economy. Why should it not be well-paid?

The conclusion is that mining can afford higher wages from non-invested profit and that this would boost consumption and savings to help restart the economy. Instead, worker dependence on credit and unsecured loans (46% of credit-active people have impaired status) has fanned the flames of labour unrest. The orthodox view favours export-led growth, which as Forslund shows, simply puts South African labour into grim competition with the worst paid of the world’s workers and contributes to wage compression (a polite, bureaucrats’ term for labour exploitation).

Stephanie Allais, in her chapter on skills development, notes the growing number of working poor even in the formal sector.

Nicol demolishes the conventional call for nationalisation, which he dismisses as prohibitively expensive, economically damaging, and a potential source of patronage and further corruption. As he points out, mineral wealth is already nationalised. Yet government is failing to manage the licence system successfully, especially in relation to social and environmental factors, to serve the national interest rather than that of international capital. Nicol lists just wages, acceptable accommodation, adult education, health compensation and environmental obligations as neglected issues that impair full benefit from a wasting asset. Changing ownership is a red herring: there is a need for a shift of power towards mining communities, not a new bureaucracy with overpaid managers.

The long-term political continuities are charted by Paul Maylam, who cautions against sweeping generalisations. Nonetheless, both the National Party (NP) and the ANC successfully built cross-class alliances around that toxic combination, resentment and nationalism. Volkskapitalisme, centred upon big business, parastatals and the apartheid public service, has much in common with present-day black economic empowerment. South African Railways and Transnet have played similar roles in different eras; and the Broederbond was well-versed in cadre deployment. Both regimes struggled to rein in corruption and ultimately resorted to cover-up. Different contexts produced different scenarios, but the trajectories were similar.

It took 20 years in power for the NP alliance to fragment, a point in history about to be reached by the ANC. Of course, the Nats were affected by the totally unexpected, courtesy of Dimitri Tsafendas: the assassination of apartheid’s architect, Hendrik Verwoerd, and the succession of the divisive reformist John Vorster. The natural death of Madiba will not have the same effect: his real political influence is long gone.

Susan Booysen examines the various mechanisms through which the ANC seems destined to prevent fragmentation of its broad alliance. Perhaps the most important is the lasting effect of liberation credentials, even though the dividend has yet to be delivered to the mass of South Africans, 50% of whom survive on eight percent of national income. The two-phase revolution and its several sub-stages have postponed the inevitable reckoning, while the ability to close ranks during elections has served the ANC well. The electorate has played along with this: first the ballot, then the brick employing serial (rather than parallel, as Booysen suggests) systems of voting and protest, often violent and in clear defiance of the rule of law. In spite of an average of 7 000 protests per annum, the ANC retains a strong relationship with “the people”. The latter have long ago woken up to the fact that they have been betrayed by patronage and corruption, but so far opposition has been either internalised or failed to translate into votes for other parties. Violent protest has been sufficiently successful to maintain this system. Dissent has been kept within the family and solidarity prevails at crucial moments, reinforced by the persistence of the Leninist practice of (un)democratic centralism.

Power, Roger Southall concludes, continues to be shared by largely racialised political and corporate elites that have a common interest in the market economy and crony capitalism, amid low economic growth and considerable sociopolitical instability. He points out, however, that there remains room for other elements, such as trade unions and civil society. This may, in practice, be simply theoretical.

In his section on hydraulic fracturing for gas, David Fig points out that there has been no effective public participation and that the right to develop eclipses the opportunity of citizens to protest effectively. All too often, the latter depends entirely on expensive resort to the courts. In this case, litigation is far too late as exploration involves fracking, probably with irreversible consequences.

But there are reasons for hope. William Attwell provides an intriguing and original analysis of Hosken Consolidated (HCI), the union-backed investment company run by the often maligned ex-trade unionists John Copelyn and Marcel Golding. They have prospered mightily, but Attwell believes that their syndicalist legacy has benefited workers by covering educational and welfare needs, a meaningful example of black community economic empowerment, although tinged with paternalism. HCI’s foundation proved prophetic in view of the ANC’s rapid abandonment of the Reconstruction and Development Programme and its warm embrace of neo-conservative economics.

The overview in NSAR 3 also provides insight into climate justice, education, health, cadre deployment and Brics. Unfortunately, some of its contributors, on the evidence of sending even an interested reader to sleep, are constrained by academically correct writing, or possibly more used to compiling official reports. But there is enough evidence in this impressive collection to vindicate Daniel’s anxiety and to explain the resurgence of the South African security state. The future, as it always has done, lies in the hands of ordinary South Africans. The generation that struggled to overthrow apartheid, from the Soweto Uprising onwards, approaches retirement. It’s up to its successors to ensure that the stifling orthodoxies of the present era that perpetuate inequity and inequality are not allowed to predominate.

• New South African Review 3: The Second Phase – Tragedy or Farce? edited by John Daniel, Prishani Naidoo, Devan Pillay and Roger Southall, was published in 2013 by Wits University Press.

• letters@witness.co.za

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