The Living Wage and Class Struggle in South Africa (Remember Marikana?)

It was reported that the Secretary General of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe once said that South Africa is an ‘Irish-coffee society’ and went on to say that, “the black is at the bottom and white on top with a sprinkling of chocolate”. It is no exaggeration to put it to you without hesitation that black people are still severely marginalised in our country, sadly 20 years post-democracy. This can thus be better explained by the on-going strikes in the mining sector, infighting within the biggest trade union movement and apathy amongst trade unions to mention but a few.

Conflicts between workers regardless of their affiliation typically reduce their collective bargaining strength as a class in the fight for better wages, improved living and working conditions. This therefore makes one wonder if class unity among workers will ever be achieved in practice. At the same time, greater mobilization of workers in their common economic conflict against employers is also often considered an effective barricade against ethnic conflict within the working class. I am raising all of this in light of the tense relations between COSATU and its biggest affiliate, NUMSA. Who benefits from a divided labour force? Employers!

For the trade unions to effectively address the plight of the workers, they ought to be united and smoke from the same pipe. Yet, currently in our country we are witnessing attacks on one section of workers by another. These often seek to legitimise claims by dissident unions that the interests of the working class are not being advanced at all. Again, who benefits from all of this? Capital! We all know ‘capital’ for what it really is. As the Secretary General of NUMSA, Irvin Jim once said that ‘capital knows no friend or relative; we know that the only thing it knows is profit maximisation”.

I certainly believe that one of the primary objectives of working class or trade unions in the economic conflict against employers or capital must be to ensure a greater surplus for workers. Yet, the same wage rate implies differential premiums for workers across identity divides, when such divides overlap, due to historical reasons, with present differences in reservation wage.

In South Africa, black workers under the apartheid regime proved to be a classic example of a segment in society that was systematically denied access to residential neighbourhoods and valuable public facilities, including security, that were available to other segments of the working class.

Interestingly, a similar trend has become apparent in the post-democratic era. This shameful trend is further supported by the ongoing strikes in the mining sector. Why do companies opt to lose millions and/ or even billions of rands instead of giving workers ‘what is rightful owed to them’, better living wage salary and working conditions? This can always be explained by the fact that owners of these companies want nothing but a hefty return on their investments.

Shareholder wealth is the appropriate goal of a business firm in a capitalist society. In a capitalist society, like South Africa, there is private ownership of goods and services by individuals. Those individuals own the means of production to make money. This, in other words, means that the owners of the means of production care less about the real welfare of their workers as theirs is purely to maximise profits at all costs.

While unions seek to enforce and expand the scope of the social wage, employers attempt to restrict or evade it, whether illegally or by utilizing loopholes and ambiguities in legislation. Much of the day-to-day conflict between employers and unions takes the form of such contestation. With that said, it is clear that the current existing structure of economic participation in our country, the poor will remain poorer – less fortunate will get poorer – uneducated will be hit hard too.

Take Marikana for example, the living conditions of the people in that area are so unbearable. Many families are on the knife edge that any slight increase in the price of food and other basic goods pushes them to much-deeper levels of poverty.

My take on the issue of poverty that the working class is facing as a result of the class and poor living conditions is that, this state has been deliberately manufactured and it can be successfully eradicated only by a united labour force.

I strongly believe that if corporates can objectively and consciously strive towards improving the living conditions of its workforce, pay them humane wages, provide quality education for the children of the miners, coupled with healthcare facilities and better working conditions, then I have no doubt that these newly empowered citizens will display immeasurable levels of commitment. This state of affairs will make it possible for companies to maximise their profits whilst the workforce is well taken care of on the other hand.

Today, in the trade union movement you see a lot of shady characters, political clowns, position seekers who masquerade as vanguards of the working class but in actual fact are bitter enemies of the struggle towards liberating the working class in our land. Their opulent lifestyle and appearances are not inspiring any confidence that they still have the interest of the working class at heart.

The real vanguards of the working class rally behind their movements, its decisions and policies in a disciplined manner. Similarly these demagogues are detected by the strides that they take in their quest to weaken thus disseminating confusion and undermining the political programme of their respective organisations.

It is quite interesting to note that these political demagogues enjoy the support of the weak-willed and politically bankrupt supporters. Sadly the presence of such elements in the trade union arena or movement constitutes a serious threat to the struggle towards emancipating the working class in this country and this further weakens and undermines the political programme of their unions.

It is therefore the desire of each worker to earn a decent salary, enjoy humanely working and living conditions and, thoroughly provide for his/ her family and sees his/ her children through university. Any elements that have made it their mission to undermine this noble desire are automatically positioning themselves outside their trade union structures and must be removed before they do further harm.

The poor and the working class in our land is longing for a strong and united trade union front that will effectively represent them and speak with one voice when faced capital or employers. I would like to encourage the working class to keep up the spirit of humble defiance against what they deem to be thuggery compensation from their employers. 

With that said, I wish to plead with them to remain in the spirit of non-violence whilst making all their demands known. 

Everyone agrees that miners and their families live in abject poverty whilst their employers are raking in money. How do we therefore bridge this gap and close down on this anomaly? Again, it requires sound and solid, united trade movement front and that is what South Africa is longing for at this juncture. 

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