AIDC perspective on the current situation
“Two Minutes to Midnight”: Converging Social, Economic and Ecological Crises
There is a growing consensus, both globally and nationally that we face the unprecedented twin challenge created by inter-linked economic and environmental crises. As the economic and environmental crises mutually reinforce one another, it only the ignorant and denialists that can dispute the need to rapidly move to a low carbon, resource efficient and equitable economy. When catastrophic climate change and equally compelling environmental crises confront society at breakneck speed the key question to be considered is what are the strategies and prospects for ecological transformation. For emerging economies, that continue to face challenges of uneven development, as well as deep-rooted social, economic and environmental contradictions it is critical to ask and answer what would be the main forces that will drive simultaneously processes of ecological and social transformation.
Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding the enormity and the urgency of the ecological crisis, popular consciousness and public discourse lag behind, remaining complacent and unfocused. This is perhaps especially concerning given South Africa’s legacy of being one of the most energy- and carbon-intensive economies in the world, with an overreliance on natural resources and poorly regulated mining, industrial and commercial agricultural sectors, and the challenges of navigating such a transition when high levels of poverty, mass unemployment and record inequality must be traversed.
South Africa faces a stark choice: (a) descend blindly into an increasingly barbarous future where Apartheid architecture and geography re-emerge in a new forms – suburban island-compounds of extraordinary privilege surrounded by seas of urban, peri-urban and rural misery and desperation – or; (b) effect a dramatic shift in direction – one that begins to give meaning and content to the incomplete struggle against apartheid and for democracy, by forging a just transition to a low carbon, wage led, sustainable development path. Recent official pronouncements and actions make clear that only organised mass action holds out any hope for choosing the second path.
Twenty Years of Democracy
Twenty years after the official end of apartheid and the onset of political democracy, it has become tragically commonplace to observe that the promise of liberation and a better life remains a hollow phrase for the vast majority of South Africans. The local economic effects of the global financial crisis and South Africa’s misguided policy responses to it are leading to a rising tide of anger and violence within communities. Massive and growing inequality continues to generate social tension. Endemic unemployment and poverty have ravaged South Africa’s townships. The hope that a democratised South Africa might use its enormous natural wealth and developed industrial base to advance a humane, pro-poor developmental agenda for the region – an agenda that might begin to undo the inequality, devastation and deprivation wrought by decades of colonial and Apartheid exploitation – has proved in vain.
Entrenched unemployment – especially among young people – as well as grinding poverty amongst a large proportion of the population and the highest levels of inequality in the world, continue to wreak havoc on urban and rural communities. The social devastation being wrought by capitalism’s ongoing crisis – and the failure of the ANC-led government to use its democratic mandate to secure improvements in the lives of the majority – has led to an appalling increase in violence against women and children, and increasing outbreaks of “xenophobic” violence, directed almost entirely against others from Africa, particularly the SADC region.
The State of Labour
South Africa’s platinum belt recently saw the country’s longest-ever mining strike Despite the important gains of the strike, there has been no substantive break with the low-wage regime that allowed super-exploitation under Apartheid. AIDC’s 2014 booklet, “Wages, Profits and Unemployment in Post-Apartheid South Africa” shows in detail how wages for the vast majority have stagnated, while those for high-skilled earners had increased by a massive 67% as of 2011. Meanwhile, 2011 was declared “another outstanding year [for investors] on the JSE” with reported returns of 20%, even as the economy continued to shed jobs.
The platinum strike offers powerful proof of the impact of ordinary consumer demand on employment: many local businesses were forced to close during the strike because their customers – the miners – could no longer afford even the modest but regular purchases they make during “normal” times. This serves as a telling confirmation of AIDC’s perspective of a wage led development path as opposed to export led growth.
Meanwhile mainstream economists – usually working for right-wing think tanks or large corporations – argue that productivity has decreased and that unit labour costs have been rising, causing investors to flee. Despite the fact that AIDC has used official statistics from Stats SA to demonstrate that claims of declining labour productivity are false, this has not prevented the myth from being continually repeated without challenge in mainstream media.
The Marikana massacre of August 2012 represented a significant turning point in South Africa’s history: simultaneously a potent symbol of the seemingly inevitable rupture of the ruling alliance, and a catalyst to that rupture. The resulting breaks and shifts within the alliance – including the emergence of a defiant NUMSA, the emergence and electoral success of the EFF, the explosive growth and organising and negotiating success of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), and other smaller but newly energised movements and parties – opens up important new possibilities for deepening South Africa’s democracy, and potentially for pressuring ruling structures towards playing a healthier and more constructive role in the region.
The Position of Women
Despite South Africa’s much-lauded constitutional protections for the rights of women and the ANC’s many progressive commitments and positions, access to security, resources and opportunities in South Africa remains deeply unequal along gendered lines. South African women and girls face systemic sexual harassment and violence, which remains extraordinarily common, massively under-reported, and especially prevalent against poor women, whether working or unemployed. Women workers in mining are at particularly high risk due to the added vulnerability of working underground. Several high-profile murders in recent years have brought increased attention to the outrageous levels and kinds of violence to which women are vulnerable, but little in the way of meaningful improvements or solutions.
Women post Apartheid, especially poor women unequally bear the brunt of the failure to redistribute wealth, provide decent essential services and overcome Apartheid’s legacy of exclusion. The country’s continuity with the migrant labour system, especially but not exclusively in mining reinforces rural poverty as a burden rural women have to endure. This is entrenched through the rise of traditional forms of authority that embed relations of patriarchy that stand in conflict with and undermine constitutional commitments to gender equality.
Regarding women’s labour, little if any progress has been made towards gaining recognition of, let alone compensation for, the enormous subsidy to the economy made by women through the provision of unpaid labour in the household. The invisibility and disparagement of so much of the work that women do translates into a broader disregard for women and their contribution to society.