Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
When power cuts affected former President Nelson Mandela’s Houghton home last week, it was inevitable that someone would comment on social media that “now he knows what the squatters feel like”. It’s an unjust and insulting comment, but not unexpected. The division between the haves and the have-nots is an ever-present debate in South Africa.
Even DJ Fresh on 5FM questioned whether those in the suburbs have gone soft, when we can’t go a day without electricity or running water. Many people live in these very circumstances every day, having to fetch water from rivers and make do with paraffin stoves to cook, at the risk of losing their homes to fire, as happened in Diepsloot last week, and in countless other places over many years.
The endless strikes we are experiencing, whether in the power sector or on the mines, all come down to the standard of life people are able to sustain on their income. As human beings though, we don’t only look at what we can and cannot afford. We also look at what we perceive others to be able to afford; and bitterness results.
Last week a representative of the National Union of Mineworkers went on radio lamenting that miners are paid just R4700 a month. That, he said, is the amount that mine bosses spend on parking tickets in a month. It made me realise that just as some of the rich are out of touch with the realities of the poor, some of the poor are out of touch with the realities of the rich.
Where can we meet each other in the midst of the battle for resources? Do we have any common ground?
Another commentator, on SAFM, pointed out that ours is still a capitalist system. It’s about the employer paying enough to get the job done, no more and no less. In a democracy, he said, the worker has a choice to take the job or not.
But it’s not that simple in a country like ours, with widespread poverty and millions unemployed. The potential exists for people to be abused simply because they are desperate for an income. There is a responsibility on the side of the employer.
At the same time, the labour cost must be sustainable to the business. If labour’s wage increase demands are beyond what the business can sustain, it will fold, and workers will be left unemployed.
The difficulty is that trade unionism in South Africa is a highly politicised arena, with COSATU being an alliance partner of the ANC. Thus there are always political agendas outside of pure market dynamics which influence negotiations. Building on the back of entrenched inequalities and lingering racial divisions, workers are led to believe that business can sustain much higher wages, but simply doesn’t want to cut into the shareholders’ slice.
Whether or not this is true in any specific instance, it is dangerous to cultivate the perception that it is true across the board. Ours is a highly emotionally charged environment, because people’s very lives depend on the outcome of strikes, negotiations and sustained industry.
My mind goes back to the words of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, when he spoke to us at the University of Fort Hare in October 1949, as President of the Students’ Representative Council. He quoted Zik, saying, “Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell a man moderately to rescue his wife from the arms of a ravisher; tell a mother to extricate gradually her babe from the fire into which it has fallen. But do not ask me to use moderation in a cause like the present.”
Many South Africans live from hand to mouth, and asking them to wait for better wages, or wait for employment, is asking the impossible. As Minister of Home Affairs for the first ten years in a democratic South Africa, I was often confronted with the dilemma faced by refugees, asylum seekers and even undocumented migrants, who are vulnerable to abuse because desperation forces them to accept lower wages, dangerous work and appalling conditions.
Many South Africans, living in their own country, are equally vulnerable to abuse.
Adding to the problem, rigid labour laws make it difficult to hire and fire, making temporary arrangements far preferable to employers than permanent positions. The intention of our labour law regime was to favour workers, who had long been at the mercy of employers who held all the power. But the laws’ lack of flexibility has created problems of its own.
The IFP has often called on the Minister of Labour to review our country’s labour laws. Right from the start, I opposed the Labour Relations Act in Cabinet and in Parliament, because of the excessive power it gave to trade unions. Our then President Mbeki heeded my warnings and tasked the then Deputy President Zuma with spearheading the revision of the Act, to create greater flexibility in the labour market.
Of course, the trade unions vigorously opposed such revision and Deputy President Zuma backed down. It was one among many times that Mr Zuma has bowed to trade unions, to the detriment of our economy, our international image and the stability of our labour market.
Undoubtedly, it would be in our country’s interests to see the tripartite alliance of the ANC, SACP and COSATU end; and that end has been predicted many times in the past because the alliance partners are so often at loggerheads over the direction to be taken. But again last week, after a meeting of the alliance partners to re-establish unity in the ranks, we witnessed the damaging consequences of its continued survival.
It seems the National Development Plan, which every party across the board embraced as a commendable blueprint for our country’s future, is no longer a Government policy. It is now, at the behest of COSATU, a “living document”, open to amendment and change. Once again, the ANC will give away our country’s future rather than oppose the people who promise them power.
We cannot stand by and wait, in a cause like the present, for the alliance to end or for the ANC to offer decisive leadership. It’s time to draw a line under this chapter of our democracy, and give South Africa a new leadership, beholden to no one but the people. We have a chance to do it in 2014. Let your vote be your voice.
Yours in the service of our nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP