The recent public sector strikes in South Africa, which brought the country to its knees and showcased the strength of trade unions in South Africa was a stark reminder to us all of the huge income disparity between the average South African and the educated elite as well as the conflicting class interests that constitute the make-up of post-Apartheid South Africa.
As I was following the story through various media, I was reminded of the words of Samir Amin, the Director of the Third World Forum which is based in Senegal,” South Africa is a microcosm of the world system. A first world, with people with standards of living and patterns of consumption which are similar to Europeans and North Americans, and an industrializing Third World, which is the world of labour with relatively high productivity, low wages, terrible forms of oppression, exploitation in modern industries and so on…… You also have the Fourth World, which is the marginalised. It is the Bantustan; it is the suburbs with the informal settlements, unemployment, criminality and no hope of surviving. You do not find all of this in one country. But you have all three in South Africa. Since the global picture is ugly, it is even uglier when concentrated in one country. It is an obscene society.” Whilst the sentiments expressed by Amin are not new, they got me thinking about class division in South Africa and the role it played in the recent public sector strikes.
Unlike Amin, my analysis is that South Africa is not divided into three, but into four classes: the rich “capitalist” class, the middle class, the working class and finally the unemployed poor. When the public sector strike was at its peak, what struck me to the core was that, the most affected people where not the rich “capitalist” class, nor the middle class or the “striking” working class, but rather the unemployed poor. They are the ones who rely the most on state services for sustenance and survival. When the working class goes on strike in order to advance and to promote its own interests, it has the unintended consequence of affecting the poorest in society more than any other group.
It became clear to me that although COSATU and the trade unions in South Africa are often thought of as representing the poorest of the poor, in reality they actually don’t. They represent the 2-4million members who make up their membership and often they promote the interests of the working/workerist class at the expense of the unemployed poor who make up the majority of South African society. In essence we have a working class which has, whether intentionally or not is another matter, united to promote its interests at the expense of the poorest of the poor. This is a tragedy of immense proportions as the unions have posited themselves as the representatives of the poor.
In essence it is the people in the “Fourth World” who suffered the most during the period of the public sector strike. They are the ones who rely on public hospitals, public schools and all sorts of government services in order to attain a “better life.” It was they and their children who were dying in state hospitals when the nurses were on strike, it is their children who are most likely going to struggle to perform academically this year as a result of having spent so many weeks away from school and not being able to catch up with the rising academic workload now that they are back at school.
Even the pro-worker labour policies that are advocated by the trade unions in South Africa, have the unintended consequence of protecting the jobs of the working class whilst disadvantaging the unemployed poor because it makes it difficult for entrepreneurship to flourish and hence for new businesses to thrive which would mean the creation of new jobs which would absorb those who are currently unemployed and bring them into the workforce. So here again we see how labour and the unions have united (whether intentionally or not) to disadvantage the unemployed poor who are the majority in South African society or the “wretched of the earth” in the timeless words of Frantz Fanon. At an institutional level you have forums like NEDLAC which represent business, labour and the government, whilst leaving out the unemployed poor. So here again we have a structure within society that includes the three classes: rich “capitalist” class, the middle class and the working class, whilst excluding the majority: the unemployed (and unemployable according to some crude economists).
The question is: why is no one seeing this and doing anything about it? Over seventy percent of these unemployed poor people are young people who are age twenty five and under. This is a complete social disaster, which has huge ramifications for the future of this nation, yet nobody seems to care enough to push for radical social transformation. Big business is just keen to promote and advance its own interests, the middle (including the black middle class) is also focussing on advancing its own interests at the expense of the workers and the poor, and the working class is also punting its own sectional interests at the expense of the unemployed poor whilst pretending to represent them. The unemployed poor continue to exist on the periphery of South African society, in the informal settlements right next to wealthy suburban establishments, in the rural areas made up of the old Bantustans and self-governing territories where service delivery is poor and quality of life is appalling. The damning reality is that it is the same working class who protest annually for wage increases who are selling the unemployed poor short. It is the working class who deliver substandard services to the unemployed poor in government schools through teachers who are not dedicated to their learners; it is the working class who deliver substandard services to the poor in state hospitals where the quality of service given is inhumane at the best of times. It is the working class who deliver substandard services to the poor and cause blockages in service delivery at every level of public service and yet they continue to demand increases and more employment benefits each year. In short, the working class is guilty of treating the unemployed poor with contempt just like business and the middle class do. They protect their jobs at the expense of the creation of jobs that would absorb more people into employment, through their promotion of labour-friendly policies that discourage enterprise and increase labour costs.
The point is not to pick on the working class as the supreme evil in society, but to highlight the fact that they are just as much the enemy of the unemployed poor as the rich “capitalist” class and the middle class are. There is no difference. South African society has united and built institutions and social structures that increasingly marginalise the poor and the workers are part of this conspiracy.
We need to build a society where the social balance of power is in favour of the subalterns. At the moment the scales are tipped against them and even those who pretend to represent them (the working class), are actually positioned against them in order to protect and promote their sectional interests. Next time you think about COSATU and the trade unions and you hear them talking about the poor and pretending to represent them, remember that, it is all a farce. It is the working class who are represented by COSATU and the unions. The unemployed poor have been left out of the “social contract” of the new South Africa. Their plight is best described by the words of that great African-American intellectual, W.E.B Du Bois, “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor man in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”