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South Africa: 20 years after Mandela's release, class apartheid continues

Jacob Zuma.

By Patrick Bond

February 16, 2010 -- Recall that South Africa's President Jacob Zuma came to power last year as a result, mainly, of trade union and South African Communist Party mobilisations in 2006-08, culminating in the rude but welcome dismissal of president Thabo Mbeki.

And now, because he is unable to galvanise momentum for any sort of political project aside from survival [following another round of scandals surrounding his private life and dubious attitude towards women], Zuma appears to be drifting rightwards, towards the Afican National Congress' solid financial-support base of white capital and aspiring black entrepreneurs.

On February 11, the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, was the day that Zuma was meant to fight back, by delivering a stunning State of the Nation speech in front of Mandela and the nation. Instead, he and his speechwriters pleased no one. Zuma displayed "no appreciation of the full extent of the massive crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality", as the leaders of his main ANC's alliance partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), bitterly complained.

Statistics justifying this charge were revealed three weeks ago by middle-of-the-road economists at the University of Cape Town (UCT). "Income inequality increased between 1993 and 2008", reported Murray Leibbrandt, Ingrid Woolard, Arden Finn and Jonathan Argent. "Poverty in urban areas has increased."

South Africa's Gini coefficient inequality measure raced ahead of Brazil's to become the world's leader among major countries: from 0.66 in 1993 to 0.70 in 2008. The income of the average black (African) person actually fell as a percentage of the average white's from 1995 (13.5%) to 2008 (13.0%).

How could a democratic government adopt socioeconomic policies that amplified apartheid race-class inequality?

Mandela, Mbeki, long-serving finance minister (now planning minister) Trevor Manuel, former trade minister Alec Erwin, and former central bank governor Tito Mboweni -- and Zuma too -- all deserve credit for a feat not even the most extreme pessimist could have predicted when the ANC was unbanned exactly two decades ago.

According to the UCT researchers, the inequality problem is "due both to rising unemployment and rising earnings inequality" -- in turn partly due to labour broking, i.e., the outsourcing of formerly secure employment at much lower wages with no benefits.

There are 500,000 outsourced workers in South Africa, according to industry sources, though the finance ministry confessed during parliamentary questions last October that its economists don't really have a clue: "To conduct such a study would require detailed data on the number of workers involved with temporary employment services or labour broking, the wages of these workers and some estimate for the number of workers who would lose their jobs if labour broking were to be banned."

Leaders of a decent society would immediately find out the answers, then ban labour brokers, and at the same time increase state-subsidised employment creation, especially for badly needed green jobs such as construction of solar hot-water heaters and community facilities, and environmental maintenance.

But as the inequality data show, South Africa is just not that kind of place; it's a society in which the ruling party's crony capitalists ally with those who grew wealthy during racial apartheid, and then together promote class-apartheid policies and practices to accumulate yet more wealth.

University of KwaZulu-Natal microcosm

In our own microcosm at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) here in Durban, the implications of this system are evident thanks to vivid lessons our administrators learned when the great teacher of poverty, Mamphela Ramphele, experimented on UCT's workforce a decade ago.

Ramphele was Steve Biko's partner, a revolutionary and community health worker during the 1970s, and a researcher of Western Cape social degradation in her 1980s anthropology doctoral thesis, and co-chair of the Carnegie Inquiry into poverty.

A committed scholar-activist, she had to retool for a new, rather more lucrative stage of her career a decade ago: World Bank managing director. To create poverty on the prolific scale required at the World Bank, Ramphele got good training as UCT's president (vice-chancellor), from 1996-2000.

According to her deputy, Wieland Gevers, Ramphele's arrival marked "a turning point in UCT's history", as the university's "focus underwent a fundamental shift". Ramphele "served on the boards of several premier corporations. She came to UCT strongly convinced that its administration was archaic and not sufficiently informed by modern corporate practice. A whirlwind hit UCT."

The ill wind blew away the rights of already low-paid workers. Explained an approving Gevers, "In corporate fashion, and with support of UCT's Council, Mamphela outsourced many functions that were not core business." By March 2000, the Labour Court ruled that UCT could retrench hundreds of non-academic staff, "a process which has already left many families homeless and fighting for survival", according to journalist Beauregard Tromp.

As at UKZN, labour broking wrecked the lives of UCT workers doing cleaning, gardening, maintenance and messenger services. Ramphele called this "pruning the tree of dead wood and inappropriately placed branches to make way for new shoots".

Dead wood? Leonard Malukazi of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union observed that Ramphele fired low-income workers who served for more than 30 years: "There were people who were about to retire in a year's time. Even then they didn't give a second thought to who they retrenched."

It was a brutal shock, says Malukazi. "The majority of university workers have been working to pay a housing bond [mortgage] and with these retrenchments it basically means that you have entire families out on the streets without the benefits of health care or housing allowances."

As Ramphele's salary soared at the World Bank, UCT workers suffered dramatic income cuts (to an average of US$160 per month) and lost their annual bonus, free medical insurance, housing subsidy and all other benefits.

UCT academics Jonathan Grossman and Vicki Scholtz noted how "Ramphele spoke of the "painful decision" and assured the UCT community that the workers would be employed, retrained and/or able to start their own businesses. As with so many painful decisions, the pain was all imposed on the victims of the decision by those taking it."

But the UCT workers resisted and after continuing their court battles, the university -- under new management -- was soon compelled to pay out nearly a million dollars worth of damages. Then workers brought their pay up to $400/month through organising and strikes.

The same process has begun at UKZN because of extremely low wages -- cleaners take home just $120/month, security guards $240 -- and exploitative working conditions, including the mass firing of 80 vulnerable cleaning workers last month.

Trevor Ngwane of the Centre for Civil Society works closely with worker-leader Zama Hlatshwayo; even these very talented radicals persistently reach deadlock with university human-resources bureaucrats.

It's a dangerous game, for anger at labour brokers ramped up tragic violence during the 2006 national security guards' strike, in which 70 scab workers were killed. "The security industry paid pitiful wages and must take responsibility for what happened," conceded Ramphele, in her 2009 book Laying Ghosts to Rest. "The right to work for a decent reward was violated by its exploitative practices."

She uses a chapter of that book to justify her UCT management practices, but somehow forgets to mention the outsourcing of low-paid workers. The "talk-left, walk-right" legacy, so typical of nationalist, post-apartheid managerialism, continues to bedevil our universities; UKZN's mission statement also sounds progressive.

What can change the power balance?

Zuma is apparently not to be trusted, for as COSATU observed on February 13, his speech contained "nothing on the creation of decent work, the spread of casualisation of labour and the scourge of labour broking, and nothing to explain how he intends to implement the 2009 manifesto commitment to 'avoid exploitation of workers and ensure decent work'."

What Zuma did do, however, was threaten more police brutality against the victims of his macroeconomic policies, such as was witnessed in the most militant peripheral town (Balfour) last week when police hunted down and tortured community activists. South Africa's per capita social protest rate continues to lead the world, and scenes of road blockades, burning tyres and repression reminiscent of the film District 9, may prove yet more embarrassing to the South African ruling class when 3 billion viewers tune into the soccer World Cup starting on June 11.

Zuma also promised electicity utility Eskom's partial privatisation, notwithstanding South Africa's universally miserable experience with the likes of phone company Telkom's Texan-Malaysian rip-off landline phone partners, the disastrous Suez municipal water takeover in Johannesburg, the crash of a South African Airlines-Swiss Air deal, machinations by the US energy firm AES, toll roads and many others.

Privatisation will, COSATU replied, "ultimately wreck a crucial public national service and we shall continue to campaign vigorously to prevent the sell-off of a vital public asset"'

Many others agree. On February 16, South Durban community organisers and Climate Justice Now!-KZN activists protested at Eskom's Durban headquarters against massive electricity price increases (likely to be approved by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa), vast greenhouse gas emissions from proposed coal-fired power plants and the threatened $3.75 billion World Bank loan.

The unity of consumers, communities, environmentalists and workers -- both formally employed and outsourced -- might prevail. An international coalition is forming to deny Eskom access to the World Bank, and if that fails, to deny the World Bank access to the $250 billion in capital it will be asking for at its Spring 2010 meetings in Washington just 10 weeks from now.

A decade ago, Trevor Ngwane and the late Dennis Brutus were instrumental in launching the World Bank Bonds Boycott, which followed the South African divestment movement of the 1970s-'80s by lobbying institutional investors to avoid profits and interest from apartheid -- or in this case, global apartheid.

In this and similar struggles now intensifying here, we riff-raff are up against formidable opponents from Pretoria to Washington, including world-class experts well practiced in the art of generating poverty and inequality. Calls for solidarity against all these class-apartheid manifestations will soon ring out.

[Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society. This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared at ZNet.]

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