Something has got to give
Amandla! Magazine: Issue 67-68 – Editorial – December 2019
As if it wasn’t bad enough. As if the suffering of the impoverished masses of South Africa wasn’t deep enough. Already we are experiencing unprecedented levels of homelessness and hunger. Already we are witnessing a seemingly endless wave of retrenchments, as a manufacturing industry, already decimated in the last 25 years, continues to shrink. Already, as we have highlighted in this magazine recently, we have a gang economy in many townships around the country. People left with such hopelessness that they will ever get employment, even at a poverty wage, that they participate in a parallel economy of drugs and abuse. They are not deviant individuals – they are people desperate for an income. Scared and desperate to feed their families.
Over 10 million South Africans cannot find work. 12 million by some methods of calculation. At least 38% of the workforce.
And they want to lay down an austerity agenda on that base. They want to cut public expenditure, as we reported in Amandla! 66, by 5% in 2020 and 6% in 2021.
There is no mystery about who suffers from cuts in public expenditure. The major consumers of public services are the poor. The wealthy, in South Africa, have their own hospitals, their own doctors and their own schools and universities. The government can cut public health expenditure as much as they like. It won’t affect the members of Discovery Health. Their risk is a different one – predatory doctors who will chop them up for profit. But it will affect the long lines of poor and working class people who form the queues outside the clinics; who queue all day to get treatment. Already, some of them get sent home if they have not got there early enough. The numbers sent home will increase. The numbers who fail to get reasonably prompt treatment will increase. The numbers who don’t get the medicine they need will increase. The numbers who die in our health facilities are increasing
ANC factionalism prevents movement
This situation is, by any human definition, a crisis. And yet what happens? The government of the ANC and SACP (and Patricia de Lille) is driving the skorokoro economy in the wrong direction.
We said in this editorial at the beginning of this year that the major challenges for Cyril Ramaphosa were going to be two confrontations with organised workers. One would be with NUM and Numsa at Eskom. The other would be with the public sector unions around shrinking the size of the public sector wage bill. In general, the forces of neoliberal capital, represented by the Ratings Agencies, are pulling them in this direction. And they are wedded to that neoliberal strategy – the smaller state and the expanded private sector.
What deters the Ramaphosa faction from actually making progress with that strategy is not primarily fear of the organised working class. Yes, it’s true that, even if Cosatu is a shadow of its former self, public sector workers are still capable of responding if their interests are seriously threatened. But the more serious threat is from the “revolutionaries” of the Magashule / Zuma, “Radical Economic Transformation” faction, waiting for their opportunity.
Neoliberalism is yesterday’s strategy
Meanwhile, the lessons of the small, outsourced state are being increasingly revealed. The mass protests in Chile against the results of the most of extreme version of neoliberal strategy. Privatising, retrenchments, cutting budgets, withdrawing subsidies, raising user fees – all of these increase the costs and pain for the poor. They are fuelling protests from Chile to Iraq, , from Sudan and Iran to Lebanon. We report on some of these in this issue of Amandla.
And the irony is that these neoliberals who want to shrink the state are so far behind the times. They ignore:
- The failing outsourcing giants of the UK economy.
- The forced de facto renationalisation of train services because of the sheer incapability of outsourced companies.
- The private prisons which abuse prisoners.
As we are writing, the British Labour Party, simply a party of Left social democracy, is standing in the British general election on a huge programme of renationalisation – water, railways, energy, even broadband.
In another instance, the recent agreement signed between the unions and South Africa Airways makes provision for a task team whose mandate is to see how much money could be saved by insourcing services. For so long, the dominant narrative has been – if you want to save money, outsource. The lesson that is starting to be learned is that, no matter how much you drive down wages and working conditions through outsourcing, it doesn’t guarantee that you save money. What it does guarantee is that you reduce standards.
They will come for you
At this point, those who still have full-time, “permanent” jobs have a choice. To adapt a classic cautionary tale: first they came for the steel workers, and I did not speak out because I was not a steel worker. Then they came for the public sector workers, and I did not speak out because I was not a public sector worker. Then they came for me. and there was no one left to speak for me.
The “permanent” workers, members of Cosatu and Saftu, can keep quiet and hope that no one comes for them. They can breathe a sigh of relief that they didn’t work for Highveld Steel (1,800 retrenched), Standard Bank (1,200), Tongaat Hulett (5,000), Sibanye-Stillwater (3,450), Multichoice (2,000), Arcelor Mittal in Saldanha Bay (1,000)… They can play Russian Roulette and hope that the next retrenchment doesn’t hold a bullet for them.
Or they can seriously mobilise to change the direction of the government.
How to avert disaster
We have to be clear straight away. A one-day stayaway, even two one-day stayaways, will make no difference. They are simply token events. They say – we want to show that we disapprove; but we know that we can’t stop what is happening. The situation is now far too severe for expressions of disapproval. If “crisis” is an overused word, we are facing disaster.
So, if expressions of disapproval are insufficient, what must we do? We cannot prescribe the way forward from this small magazine. But we can illustrate the scale of need and possibility. If token one-day action is not useful, what might be? To actually stop government in its tracks would require action that continues until it achieves its goal. That would mean the “rolling mass strikes” that are often talked about but never implemented. Steelworkers out today. Food workers out tomorrow. Prison workers out the day after. Mineworkers the next day. Teachers the day after that. Your turn will come round once a month.
It’s painful to lose a day’s wages every month, but it’s manageable. And it keeps the pressure on continuously. It can be ramped up as the immediate situation demands. The only drawback it has is that it requires intensive organisation. It would require unions to go back down to their members and organise, educate and mobilise in ways that we haven’t seen in the labour movement for many years, to the point where some wonder if those muscles still exist. But perhaps that analogy is a useful one. Because the only way to restore atrophied muscles is to exercise them.
Similarly with retrenchments. At the moment we complain, we consult, we negotiate training layoff schemes and the most generous packages we can get, and we accept. Management buys off our members with packages they feel they can’t resist. The training received by retrenched workers is enough to salve the consciences of the employers who get rid of them. But it’s not enough to make any difference to the lives of those workers. Theyare plunged in an instant from the inadequate but tolerable conditions of an exploited worker to the misery of unemployment and unemployability.
So what alternatives are there? At the very least we must start to think of developing exemplary struggles of working class resistance. Argentinian labour history contains many examples of factory occupations in response to waves of retrenchments and factory closures. The British have, from time to time, done the same. The well-known historical example of an armaments factory in Britain, Lucas Aerospace, which, although ultimately it was never implemented, produced a plan to turn an armaments factory into a manufacturer of socially useful goods. This plan was produced out of an alliance of progressive intellectuals and workers. They say that, bad as the situation is for us, we have not accepted defeat. We are laying down, for future generations, markers for what workers self-organisation can do.
So, it is time to get out of the routinist box of retrenchment consultations and the occasional one-day mass action. They are fine for a situation where we are not under immediate threat. That is not where we stand today. Today we stand on the edge of a precipice of disaster. The political leadership is leading us over the edge. Are we going quietly?