Brad Cibane
Brad Cibane

The old plight of workers in the new South Africa

Pictures of labourers with raised fists, chanting liberation slogans are now commonplace in South Africa. We’re notorious for industrial protests, dubbed “the protest capital of the world”. For many, the only serious cause for concern is the unsightly violence of industrial protests. The world watched in awe as the police showered (allegedly) armed Marikana miners with rifle fire. Forty-six people were killed, 34 all in a day’s work. With Marikana incident still fresh, a violent transport workers’ protest erupted. Local and international media were littered with images of burning trucks and reports of violent clashes between protesters and police. Before the country could breathe, protests erupted in De Doorns. This time it was the farm workers protesting disgustingly meagre wages. The pictures were no different: burning police vehicles, blocked roads, burning tyres and substantial damage to public and private property.

The response of government, the media and business has been to blame workers and undisciplined unions. Politicians are engaged in vigorous finger pointing and business is threatening capital flight. The international community blames a lack of leadership and an inefficient government. Rating agencies have in turn cut South Africa’s credit rating and the Reserve Bank has cut the economic growth outlook. These are signs of a country in turmoil. South Africa is burning, literally, each day. The president however, disagrees. President Jacob Zuma insists the country “is stable”. The three steps of problem solving: denial, recognition and action!

There is a general unwillingness (or the inability) to address the industrial problem holistically. The government’s response has been scanty. The critics are none the better, barren if anything. The labour turmoil plaguing SA today is historical and cannot be addressed by a piecemeal pacifying of protests.

Harold Wolpe in his highly-acclaimed paper in 1972 provided a lucid explanation of the relationship between apartheid and cheap labour. The access to cheap labour formed a fundamental pillar of the apartheid institution. Apartheid itself was an intensification of the pre-1948 segregation, what set apartheid apart was a crafty institutionalisation. Apartheid intensified an existing system of racial segregation, of class hierarchy and domination. The apartheid institution modernised and rationalised existing institutions of dominance, closed all loopholes and created a brutal enforcement machine.

As far back as 1913, land had already been reserved for the production class through the Land Act. The Land Bank Act in turn provided subsidies to white farmers. The Industrial Coalition Act, Master and Servant Act, The Native Labour Act and the Natives Act put a tight put a tight clasp on recalcitrant workers and mulled worker rights.

The system was craftily designed to ensure an eternal pool of cheap migrant labour. Even those blacks born in South Africa were to be butted to “homelands” to reduce costs and guarantee subservience. As Chamber of Mines put it before Witwatersrand Native Wage Commission in 1944: ”The maintenance of the system under which mines are able to obtain unskilled labour at a rate less than that ordinarily paid in the industry depends this.”

The education system was also augmented to serve the grand design. An inferior education ensured that unskilled labourers were denied opportunities and were uncomprehending of social and political contradictions. Under the native education system blacks from inferior poorly-resourced schools could obtain the same tertiary education as whites. Apartheid closed this loophole. Verwoerd said “education must train people in accordance with … the sphere in which they live”.

Population control legislation sought to displace labourers. The first task was to resettle poor labourers (blacks) away from urban areas (Group Areas Act and Native Resettlement Act) to control their entry and exit (pass laws) and to prevent squatting near urban areas (Squatting Act). The ultimate stage was to make workers citizens of pretend-states without economies (Bantu Self-Government Act and the Homelands Citizens Act).

The advent of democracy brought some change to industrial relations. Section 27 of the interim Constitution (Section 23 of the Constitution) guarantees the right to “fair labour practices”. The democratic government enacted the Labour Relations Act (LRA). The LRA improved procedural rights of workers. Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) was enacted to provide substantive rights (such as leave time and minimum wage). Institutions such as the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and National Economic Development and Labour Council were created. The BCEA did not change the vile reality for workers, minimum wages remained the same. Government opted for market regulation and collective bargaining.

Do you see the problem yet? The people who were oppressed and denied quality work, skills and fair pay were promised liberation. They voted and installed a government but were told to do it themselves! They were told go out to the streets and bargain collectively for change. But as disposable cheap labour what do they have to bargain with except stones and fire?

The labour minister recently ”raised” the minimum wage for farmworkers for March 2013 — Feb 2014 to R7.71 an hour; R347.10 a week and R1 503.90 a month. This amount does not include medical aid or a pension! As a struggling university student my food budget was R700. What about the farmworker who is a single mother with two high school kids?

The intelligentsia responds with unemployment talk, of rigidities that are preventing growth, of unstable workers and clamorous unions. The people don’t care! The “economy” is for the rich. Employed people are dirt-poor, they lose nothing. They want their slice of freedom. They want salvation. Eighteen years after the celebrated liberation, they haven’t seen or felt it. The liberation leaders arrive in helicopters wearing designer suits. They call for discipline. People are asking “where is your discipline, Qabane?”

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