Strike or revolution?

2010-09-06 00:00

THERE are indications that the public servants’ strike is going to end this week. Unions were locked in with their members explaining the finer details of government’s latest offer. Commentators have taken to calling the action by the public servants a “bruising strike”. Its effect feels more like a sledgehammer. One of the lowest points was the trashing of the Durban mortuary. It epitomised the violence of the strike. Many would call irreverence for the dead the basest form of human behaviour. This is what happens in times of upheaval — honour and decency are thrown out the window. What’s happened in the last three weeks has all the appearances of a revolt rather than industrial action. Sounds dramatic, but let’s face it, for the majority of South Africans life has hardly changed post 1994, that is, compared to the lives of the country’s political elite. As Mark Gevisser aptly titled his biography on former president Thabo Mbeki, The Dream Deferred. Mbeki’s dream may have been deferred, but so too the dream of a different life for thousands of ordinary South Africans. Gevisser’s title is based on a poem by Langston Hughes, which reads:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore —

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over —

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

The anarchy that characterised the public servants’ strike did resemble an explosion, typified by the anger displayed at the meagre salary hikes offered to workers compared to the earnings of the political elite.

You may well say this is no revolution as those involved are members of the middle class. My colleague Christopher Merrett reminded me that most revolutions in history were started by the middle classes. Revolutions take many forms and do not necessarily end up with dramatic changes. Here in South Africa the potential for upheaval remains, as long as we continue to be the most unequal society in the world. A study last year by Haroon Bhorat, economics professor at the University of Cape Town, found that South Africa had overtaken Brazil as the country with the widest gap between rich and poor.

This time the revolt was by the civil servants. Who will be next? Perhaps it should be poor high school pupils in rural areas fed up at having their own dreams deferred by an indifferent government while they struggle to learn in ill-equpped run-down schools and are at the mercy of uncaring teachers. Some commentators have described the fallout for poor black children in township and rural schools as an unmitigated disaster. Others have said the combination of schools being closed during the football World Cup and then the strike could well give rise to the next lost generation — angry, embittered and jobless youths.

It is common cause that the strike is about political posturing. However, members of the government and by extension the political elite caught up in their own battle for positions, could well end up ignoring this deep-seated discontent. They do so at their own peril.

The ANC’s KZN provincial general council (PGC) this weekend certainly took a step in the right direction. In its declaration at the end of the meeting it said that the widening income gap is unsustainable and contributes to the inequality that exists in South African society. “We believe that our country must introduce a dispensation in which directors in middle and top management, including directors-general and extending to the senior executive in para­statals as well as government ministers’ salary increases must be temporarily frozen and a sliding scale should be used to determine annual increments that will reduce the wage gap,” said the declaration.

President Jacob Zuma may agree with this, but he sees nothing wrong in his family’s business deals. In an interview with the Sunday Times he is reported to have fiercely defended his family’s involvement in lucrative business deals and denied that his relatives are using their proximity to his office to acquire mineral rights from the state. Zuma is reported to have said: “Nobody has said here is corruption. I think that if you are a Zuma you can’t do business is a very funny thing, I tell you.”

Like the politicians who quote the ministerial handbook to justify their top-of-the-range cars or their stays in luxury hotels, the president just does not get it. Of course it is not always about corruption. In Zuma’s case it is about the close proximity of the business deals to government. Much more than this, it is about seeing the bigger picture and being sensitive to the people you serve.


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