South Africa: At the end of the wage

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By Dale T. McKinley and Ahmed Veriava, Johannesburg

“I'm collecting a register for the indigent people and I had 37,000 applications from Emfuleni only. Each and every day I come across children who are left in their homes -- the parents are deceased -- they are hungry. When I knock at the door, I say how you are surviving and they say we have been hungry for three days, we haven't got food. You wouldn't think it's a reality in an urban area like this but it is a reality. People are unemployed, a lot of people are unemployed.”

-- Priscilla Ramagale-Ramakau, government social worker in Sebokeng

July 5, 2009 -- It wasn't always this way for Sebokeng, one of the older urban ``townships'' in South Africa, a place synonymous with the early settlement and subsequent massive growth of the black industrial working class.

It was workers in places like Sebokeng who had fuelled the vain hopes of the apartheid state that the development of a settled, waged black working class would ensure continued economic growth as well as political stability. But that's not how it turned out. Instead, those workers used their stable waged employment in South Africa's industrial heartland to transform themselves into a vanguard for the development of trade union organisation and struggles for political freedom. There are few places in South Africa with as strong a history of resistance in the community and at the workplace, a building of counter-power that played such a key role in bringing the apartheid system to the point of political and socioeconomic crisis.

The figure of the waged proletariat formed the backbone of the community's working-class strength and lifestyle. They bought bonded houses, put food on the table for their families and sent their children to school. However, the very foundation for this strength, waged labour, would quickly become the community's Achilles heel. Taking a leaf out of the pages of their apartheid predecessors, the new democratic state adopted a policy strategy which saw waged labour as the ticket to (deracialised) socioeconomic inclusion, the main conduit for social citizenship. This very same state however, effectively tore up that ticket when it adopted macroeconomic policies that first incubated, then catalysed the mass shedding of waged labour as part of the headlong, post-apartheid pursuit of economic growth and profit.

The workers of Sebokeng were amongst the first to feel the cold winds of retrenchment that followed in the decade after 1994. Throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s the vast majority of workers living in Sebokeng had been employed in the surrounding heavy industries, by behemoths like SAMANCOR and ISCOR. The great irony of South Africa's ``miracle'' is that at the very moment at which the promise of political freedom seemed to be at hand, daily life would be forced to meet the new insecurities of post-apartheid unemployment and retrenchment, sharpened by the shift from public-sector parastatals to privatised corporates. By the turn of the 21st century the bloodletting was in full surge, spurred on not only by the new democratic state's reborn neoliberalism but also by the crass greed and inhumanity of new comprador elite and the corporate mandarins of globalising capitalism.

At the very point that workers were consolidating the social and economic security that all had worked so hard to achieve (even if often precariously), the proverbial carpet was pulled from underneath their feet. The large-scale loss of jobs would come at the same time that the promises of inclusion into a new South Africa, was made conditional on the benefits, consistency and extension of rights that came from having a job.

For the community of Sebokeng, at the end of the wage they found nothing but the precipitous deterioration of the social and physical conditions of life.

Following hot on the heels of the privatised balkanisation of ISCOR, hundreds of long-time workers were retrenched from SAMANCOR. Ezekial Motseke was one of those workers:

“They told us that they were closing down a furnace that was no longer going to work and thus they had no choice but to retrench us (but) they knew that all of us were affected by manganese. Since then nothing is right with my body. I am always sick, I am always in bed. My body is painful all day long.”

Another retrenched worker, Thomas Molefe laments the experience:

“That place … it endangered our lives but we couldn’t do otherwise because we were earning a living for our kids … that place killed me. We didn’t know what was going on, what was eating us there. People were sick there inside but we couldn’t see.”

What was thus bequeathed to these and countless other workers was a double ``death''. On the one hand, an almost immediate social death wherein the hard-won social power gained within a context of waged employment was effectively erased. On the other, a more gradual, excruciatingly slow physical death as a direct result of the conditions under which they worked. These two ``deaths'' have become inseparable and represent a tragic and doubly ironic twist of the transitional inheritance of the Sebokeng workers that increasingly appears as a metaphor for the life of the entire community.

Not long ago the working class in South Africa was being told by the state that the imperatives of ``macro-economic stability'' and ``economic growth'' necessitated a period of ``sacrifice'' (read: loss of waged employment/retrenchment) for the greater good. Now that the ``greater good'' has been exposed for the selfish lie that it is and the full political and social impact of the ``sacrifice'' continues to devastatingly hit home, the same working class is being told by the state to hold onto the coat-tails of social welfare and the promise of ``new and expanded'' opportunities for waged employment. It is a cruel, twisted and chimeric logic and it is slowly but surely strangling the individual and collective life out of communities like Sebokeng.

[Dale McKinley is an independent writer, lecturer and researcher, and an activist within the Anti-Privatisation Forum as well as the Social Movements Indaba. This article is part of a two-year research project conducted by the authors through the South African History Archive entitled ``Forgotten Voices in the Present: Post-1994 Oral Histories from Three Poor Communities in South Africa''. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]