When insanity is normal

by Aug 1, 2011All Articles

editorial11and12AMANDLA ISSUE 11 and 12 | EDITORIAL : In the governmentís medium-term budget policy statement new finance minister Pravin Gordhan highlights South Africaís shocking reality that just
42% of the population aged between 15 and 64 are in some form of employment. This compares unfavourably with countries such as Brazil and China, where about two-thirds of the adult population work. In the former homelands, the picture is even bleaker, with fewer than 30% of the adult population working. According to the Labour Force Survey, almost half of young Africans have never worked.
Hardly was the ink dry on this statement when the Quarterly Labour Force Survey reported that a further 484 000 jobs were lost between July and September this year. This brings the total jobs lost since the start of the recession to more than one million.

Recall that ësome form of employmentí includes begging on the side of the road for money or food and any informal employment such as repairing and maintenance in oneís own home, paid or unpaid! Our unemployment figures do not include those who have become so discouraged and weighed down by poverty they have given up looking for work. In truth, if we looked at unemployment with out tinted glasses, we would see the greatest blight on SAís post ñ apartheid transition, not just a crisis but a social catastrophe.

Yet, consider for a moment the issues that have dominated our body politic and the media: shenanigans at state-run enterprises, governmentís shoot-to-kill policy, Jansen and the pardoning of the Reitz 4, comments on the musings of Julius Malema. Absent are any serious comment and discussion on mass unemployment.

Unemployment is neglected for three main reasons. First, we have got used to levels of unemployment that would be unthinkable in most other countries. The Great Depression of the 1930s has been much in the news of late. It earned its historical and universally recognised name because, amongst other things, unemployment in the US peaked at 25%. Moreover, in places like Argentina, once the most industrialised economy of  Latin America, a 20% unemployment rate in 2001 brought down five governments through mass protest. Yet, an official unemployment rate of around 25% is our norm! We have got so used to it during the past decade that it no longer even takes our breath away.

The perceived politics of the possible is the second reason why other matters dominate the public debate. Letís recall that unemployment was at 16% before the introduction of GEAR, the governmentís neo-liberal macroeconomic policy. Imagine the celebrations if our unemployment rate were to return to 16%! Yet the government is still largely wedded to the economics of neo-liberalism. So, too, are all other parliamentary political parties. This means impotence for all the parties of parliament who all place job creation at the centre of their policies but, as prisoners of essentially the same neo-liberalism, can do no more than point accusing figures at each other. Their mutual shouting has become so empty that it is no longer newsworthy.

The silence of the unemployed is the third reason why unemployment doesnít dominate our media. This is not to say that the unemployed do not display their anger. They do ñ but as service-delivery protests rather than explicit protests against unemployment. 

The situation desperately calls for both radical economic alternatives and reforms that immediately alleviate the intolerable hardships of the millions of people constantly mocked by a constitution that promises so much and provides so little. While COSATU understandably looks to its Alliance partner in government, the ANC, and sympathetic Ministers like Ebrahim Patel and Rob Davies to address the jobs crisis it would do well to remember that private capital controls 80% of the South African economy, one that has become progressively financialised, globalised and intrinsically labour displacing.  From this base it largely determines the economic shape of things. Without confronting capital the state will remain relatively weak.

While, yes it is clichÈd to keep on shouting for COSATU to roll out a programme of mass action, a strategy that largely depends on lobbying government and the Alliance is prisoner of a failed history that delivered so little. Another Jobs Summit with government, business and labour is ëso old schoolí. We need an alternative that can excite those at the epicentre of the unemployment crisis ñ the workers and the unemployed. We need a campaign that will capture the imagination such as the anti-pass campaign did or for the Freedom Charter did. Through a process of consultation popular organisations big and small, communities, especially those at the centre of the ëservice delivery protestsí  must be drawn into an assembly of the poor where a transformative agenda can be drafted. The right to decent work should be used to galvanise demands that go beyond the immediate.

Yes we can demand welfare for the unemployed in a form of basic income grant, free transport, etc. Yes we can demand the reorganisation of the Expanded Public Works Programme into one that provides guaranteed work for at least one full year. Yes we can demand an end to informalisation and casualisation starting with the ban of labour brokering, but we also can be bolder in the face of mass retrenchments. If they can occupy factories in Argentina, Chicago, Britain and elsewhere and transform them into co-operatives why canít we?
Radical! Maybe but then we live in times when insanity has become the new normal. 

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