Xolani is a municipal worker in Johannesburg, doing dirty, hard, but socially necessary labour for which he is paid the negotiated minimum of R4 330.30 a month. He is an example of one of thousands of workers in similar positions in local government service in towns and cities around the country.
Like so many of his counterparts Xolani lives in one of the informal settlements that have sprung up on the fringes of urban centres. It is in settlements such as these that services such as sanitation, water and rubbish collection that he and his fellows provide, are few and far between, if they exist at all.
Yet Xolani considers himself fortunate: at least he has a job that has a negotiated wage that is above the basic “living wage” demanded by the labour movement. But he is also acutely aware that his wage is barely enough to sustain him, his wife, two children and an unemployed younger brother while the work he does helps to sustain the lifestyle of the more affluent.
So Xolani and others like him in every part of the country are both resentful and angry. In most cases, the main targets of the resentment and anger are the hierarchies in local government which the workers maintain are all too often riddled with corruption; it is an environment in which councillors can award themselves 20 percent pay rises while holding worker increases to single digits.
It is this reality that caused the SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) to warn this week that the wave of service delivery protests that have broken out around the country over the past fortnight may only get worse. But reports that these are part of the current jockeying for power within factions of the governing ANC have been emphatically denied by the union.
Samwu stresses that its targets throughout have been corruption and maladministration; the fact that ANC-controlled councils are mainly involved is merely a reflection of the reality that most councils are controlled by members of the ANC. But so long as current conditions persist, there is a strong likelihood of trade unions and communities being involved in more “rolling mass action”.
It is this perception of events unfolding in South Africa that caused those investment tipsters, the ratings agencies, to downgrade the country’s prospects. Probably correctly, many unionists see this move by the agencies as an attempt to pressure the government not to deviate from its present, business-friendly policies. And deviation would be required if the labour movement’s suggestions are followed.
While the ratings agencies and their fickle, portfolio-investing followers, would support union demands that the “cancer of corruption and maladministration” be rooted out, they would oppose a switch in policy direction to redistribution before growth. Yet this switch, unions such as Samwu argue, is essential to ensure social stability; that general welfare and the “public good” must come before concern for economic growth based on private profit.
The apparent consensus view, not only within Samwu, but across the movement, is that the blame for the levels of unrest lies with broken promises, failure to deliver services, corruption, maladministration and often obscene wage and welfare gaps between workers and management. These are widely seen as outgrowths of the trickle-down policies first articulated in 1996 and exacerbated by the the pressures of the global economic crisis.
In recent years in the local government sector, there has been a steady stream of complaints from Samwu and its members about nepotism, corruption and maladministration, along with evidence of an often extraordinary waste of financial resources. Workers have pointed to councillors on the take, mayors who buy not one but two luxury cars at ratepayers’ expense and to highly paid officials whose qualifications and competence are questionable. “But nothing ever happens to correct this,” says Samwu spokesperson, Tahir Sema. “The simple truth is that there does not appear to be the political will to deal with the issue.” As a result, communities frequently tend to apply their own forms of pressure, sometimes in a negative way by burning down the meagre facilities that exist in their areas.
And although the union maintains that nothing much is ever done about complaints and warnings — many of which have received publicity over the years — action has been take in terms of the victimisation of workers who have dared to speak out. Along with well-documented cases of sackings and other forms of victimisation, the union also alleges that some whistleblowing members have been assassinated. Given this background, Sema is not optimistic about anything positive emerging from the latest flurry of publicity following media revelations at the weekend about large
pay packets handed out to officials in poorly performing municipalities. The analysis of municipal executive budget data published on Sunday, triggered several days of angry radio comments and debates.
For Samwu officials, much of the detail revealed was unknown, but, as Sema notes, there was nothing new in the general picture presented. “Last year, for example, it was widely broadcast that Johannesburg’s municipal manager, Trevor Fowler, was paid more than the president of the country, and nothing more was said or done,” he says. In fact, according to Treasury, Fowler’s annual package is budgeted at R2 306 030 or R192 169 a month. If a worker such as Xolani started work at age 20, it would take until retirement at 65 for him to earn what Fowler is paid in just one year.
However, given the circumstances of their lifestyles, it is unlikely that many Xolanis of this world will live long enough to labour for 45 years. The life expectancy of South African men is now just 50 years and three months. For women it is even lower.
As the unions note, this is a growing social, humanitarian and economic crisis. Urgent, dramatic and radical steps need to be taken, starting with action against corrupt officials and councillors, along with changes in municipal legislation that would allow greater community oversight of local government.