Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Economic injustice against the people

The growing divide between rich and poor in South Africa reveals the fault lines of a much broader divide – in fact, a global divide – between what one may describe as “the people” and the anonymous world of money (even if this world is often hidden behind identifiable agents, such as politicians).

This was captured well in a statement made recently by Francois Hollande, the socialist challenger of Nicolas Sarkozy in the French presidential campaign, when he remarked, during a speech at a rally (quoted in TIME, 23 April, p. 30, by Peter Gumbel): “My adversary, my real adversary has no name and no face and no political party. He will never be a candidate and thus will never be elected, and yet he rules. This adversary is the world of finance.”

And lest anyone (like my usual cohort of knee-jerk capitalist critics) should immediately retort that one can expect no less from a socialist, let me remind them that even Nicolas Sarkozy, usually a friend of the capitalist corporations, has positioned himself, in his campaign, with the so-called 99% against the 1% he (and others) hold responsible for the current global economic mess. Nor do Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the extreme left, or Marine Le Pen of the far right differ from Hollande and Sarkozy on this populist approach. It seems that, in the wake of the “great recession” of 2008, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has become more visible than it has been for a long time.

As Gumbel indicates, all of these politicians are “feeding [off and] into” the general discontent among the French populace, which was succinctly captured by French writer and WW II resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel, in a pamphlet of about 18 months ago, titled “Time for Outrage!” where he said (quoted by Gumbel in TIME) that it was time for especially the youth to resurrect the spirit of resistance (against the Nazis during WW II) in the guise of “peaceful insurrection” against the current injustice, and against “mass consumption, the disdain of the weak and of culture, general amnesia and the endless competition of all against all”.

Needless to stress, the significance of Hessel’s pamphlet is not only valid in France, but on a global scale, where neoliberal capitalism (in its alliance with governments) has catapulted people into a veritable scene of unmitigated social Darwinism of “the survival of the (economically) fittest”, and where ordinary people are expected to conjure capitalism’s major signifier, money, out of thin air, as it were, to survive.

Here in South Africa one of the masks that this struggle for economic justice and survival has assumed in recent months, is that of e-tolling, which has rapidly become a site of confrontation between a capital-serving (instead of people-serving) government and “the people” in the shape of a loose alliance of individuals (blue-collar as well as white-collar “workers”), trade unions, NGOs and other organisations.

It would be no understatement to see in this a manifestation of what Alain Badiou – a revolutionary philosopher if ever there was one – calls “the event”: where “subjects-in-relation” converge in space and time through collective action, creating a happening which has the promise of changing the very fabric of society (its discourses, its values, its power-relations). To be sure, this unfolding “event” of resistance to e-tolling is grafted on the “event” of Tahrir Square in Egypt, where the “leaderless revolution” unfolded early in 2011 – an event that has become paradigmatic for several other instances of insurrection globally since then.

It also reminds one – and I hope it will remain within the parameters of – Gandhi’s “satyagraha”, or philosophy of passive resistance, at least passive in the sense of not resorting to violence, while still remaining resolutely resistant to the oppressive system in question. Only if this is respected, can the revolt against the unilateral imposition of such an economically crippling system of extracting money from citizens, who can ill afford it, have any hope of succeeding in a manner where the activists and opponents of the system would retain their dignity as citizens of a supposedly democratic country. I say “supposedly” because the ruling party has evidently forgotten whom it represents in the name of democracy, namely “the people” – the very people who have made it very clear that they do not accept e-tolling.

And it is undeniable that the resistance to e-tolling in Gauteng (the thin edge of the wedge; if it were to be successfully implemented there, it would spread to the rest of the country) issues from the people, to whom government and Sanral (South African National Roads Agency Limited) representatives are turning a deaf ear. The ANC government should remind itself that, when people in a democracy are repeatedly subjected to unjustifiable (in this case economic) measures by the putatively “representative” government, citizens may turn to civil disobedience as a last resort. Needless to point out, this has happened in other democracies before, including the US.

The government’s amnesia also includes the fact that South Africans are among the most heavily taxed people in the world – a friend of mine who teaches accounting recently calculated that, if we added all the different kinds of taxes (PAYE, SITE, VAT, tolling fees, fuel-levies, import tax, etc.) together, we give more than 60% of what we “earn” back to this government. One would think that the building and maintenance of roads should be (and can be) funded out of the money thus collected. Even if that were the case, we would not have the “free roads” that Cosatu is clamouring for, but it would be a legitimate use of funds collected through “normal” tax. (We recently drove from Port Elizabeth to Durban through the Transkei, and while the roads were generally in good condition before we reached Mtatha, from there to KZN they were in an atrocious condition – some of the potholes were so big that, should a car-tyre hit one of them at a speed of about 100 kmh, the car is likely to overturn. In other words, our tax money is not being used appropriately or efficiently.)

Sanral’s insistence, that the debt incurred by having had the roads built has to be settled by “road users”, is disingenuous, in so far as it conveniently keeps quiet about the fact – if I recall correctly – that these roads were constructed as a showcase for overseas visitors during the 2010 Soccer World Cup. In other words, they were part of the ANC government’s public relations effort to impress the world at large. True, today people reap the benefits of a much improved road network around Johannesburg and Pretoria, but one that should be funded from regular taxes. This is especially so because there do not seem to be viable alternative routes available on a work-daily basis to motorists who cannot afford to use roads that are to be so heavily taxed. Besides, we all know that, once the construction of these roads has been paid for, e-tolling will not disappear.

In the final analysis the struggle against the imposition of e-tolling in this country is another case of the global struggle against economic injustice, which not even a relatively “wealthy” country like France has escaped, but which is arguably affecting proportionally more people in South Africa – people who simply cannot afford to add additional (and exorbitant) travel costs to their already stretched budgets.

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