When will they ever learn? So wrote the great songwriter/folk singer Pete Seeger about governments and their propensity to go to war. But the same could be asked about any number of apparently silly, contradictory, or even dangerously lethal policies pursued by any powers that be.
And we don’t have to look abroad to Trump or Putin for examples.
The problem, however, is to ascertain which of generally proclaimed beneficial policies are really in the interests of all.
Patriotism, for example, is presented as a noble we are all in it together ideal – we are all in it together – and has been used around the world to send millions of men and women to their deaths to the profit of minorities.
Better for all?
But because politicians in liberal democracies need popular support, the policies they promote and pursue are invariably presented as being in the broadest possible interest. In other words, policies that will take care of the environment and of the wellbeing of the working — and voting — masses, be they employed or jobless.
So politicians at local, regional or national level tend always to claim to act in the best interests of all, while ignoring any detrimental consequences of their decisions, especially if they do not affect their specific constituencies. A recent example at local level was the decision of the Johannesburg City Council to institute a system of commercialised household recycling.
A private company has won the tender to pick up and sell recyclables that householders in suburbia will be encouraged to place in special bins. This sorting at household level is something practiced in many countries around the world and makes for more efficient recycling while lessening the pressure on already overburdened landfill sites.
But what was largely ignored in this decision was the massive, informal recycling system that already exists and was mentioned in this column last month. It comprises hundreds — perhaps thousands — of informal waste pickers, who move in from the shacklands on the margins of suburbia to sort through the weekly detritus of suburbia, extracting recyclables to sell for a relative pittance to commercial depots.
This is smelly, dirty and often back-breaking work that earns most pickers just enough to survive on. Under the new Johannesburg system, the pickers will no longer have to sort through the mixed garbage of the affluent: they will have no jobs.
A private company, using large vehicles, will employ a few workers whose total income will be many times less than the combined incomes earned by the pickers each week. Because households will do the sorting, more plastics and other material will be recycled and the collecting company, along with the commercial recycling depots, should make good profits.
But this will be at the cost of hundreds of families effectively dumped on the growing scrap heap of surplus humanity.
Yet there are alternatives, variations on the Brazilian experience mentioned here last month: organise the pickers, provide them with decent trolleys and let them remove the recyclables separated by households, preferably to a co-operative recycling centre.
What is required is political will. And here the unions should play a role in encouraging the organisation of the waste pickers and the establishment of a sensible, mutually beneficial approach to recycling.
But then, the unions should also have made their voices heard about the currently bi-polar row about expropriation of tribal land, centred on the Ingonyama Trust of KwaZulu-Natal. Once again, this entire row has been presented — amid considerable emotion — as an either/or situation: either "traditional leaders" remain in control, or residents on the land can be given title deeds "to enable them to raise capital".
Among those categorised by former president Kgalema Molanthe as "tin pot dictators" are chiefs who have pointed out that handing out title deeds would be an invitation for many rural households — often homes of migrants workers — to go into debt, using property as collateral. Monied people, they say, would also be able to buy up large tracts of land from the indebted.
They are right. But individual ownership in a capitalist system is not the only alternative to feudal control. Traditional leaders, many of them creations of British colonial and apartheid authorities, control relatively large land holdings that could be held in trust by the communities that reside on the land. Each resident could have an equal say in how the land — in some cases, more importantly, what lies under it — should be used, exploited and shared.
It may be that the residents of the largest such land area — falling under the Ingonyama Trust — may vote to allow King Zwelithini to continue to exercise control. But that would be subject to their ongoing approval. And the disbursement of income to the area — including perhaps the R54 million paid by national government to the royal household — should also be subject to popular decision.
Such a move would put all of South Africa onto the footing demanded by the Constitution: that all shall be equal before the law and that the law should insist that all shall enjoy equal rights. And that, of course, is also a fundamental principle of trade unionism.