Spectres of Heath and Thatcher.

August 31, 2010

As the public servants’ strike continues it has managed to draw in other unions, with the support and endorsement of COSATU, who are all threatening to go on strike in support of their comrades. That is, of course, their right. Those who say “That is, of course, their right” are naturally about to explain why such rights should not be exercised, in the interests of the fatness of the bottoms of those people who say “That is, of course, their right”. The adipose Creator does not wish to swim against this tide.
Basically, COSATU is flexing its political muscles, on the assumption that the government will be impressed by this, as it has been impressed before. The principal forces currently engaged in the strike — the teachers and the nurses — received big pay increases over the past three years. This did not lead to any significant improvement in the performance of public healthcare and education. Hence, what overall benefit is the public likely to receive from an increase 3,6% higher than the rate of inflation instead of 2% higher than the rate of inflation? The probable answer is, “Little, if any”. Hence, it is probable that public support for COSATU’s actions is not tremendously high.
What support exists probably stems from a broad-based (and not always broad-buttocked) distrust of the Zuma government. People see COSATU as being opposed to that government, and therefore endorse its actions. The only awkward part of this analysis is that COSATU is heavily responsible for the Zuma government being where it is today. In effect, COSATU is going on marches chanting “Down with us and what we stand for!”.
Can’t argue with that.
The core problem for COSATU, however, is that it only appears strong so long as the government is weak. If the government chooses to play it tough for a change, COSATU actually has no cards in its hands. The government has already negotiated as much as any government usually does. What’s more, the unions are in a potentially weak position; the nurses’ strike is actually illegal, and a large number of the teachers are actually underqualified and, if their managers were more honest, could probably be charged with offenses liable to lead to dismissal. COSATU, on the other hand, is charging about, supported by other trade unions, proclaiming that the government is evil, oppressive, neoliberal, brutal, worse than the apartheid regime, etc., etc. All this serves the interests of conservatives well — it’s no accident that conservative unions are now joining the strike when they hear their propaganda mouthed by people who claim to be in alliance with the ANC. Who else’s interests does it serve? Remains to be seen, for even if COSATU wins, it is winning by means which don’t really help the general public.
But what if it doesn’t win?
There is an uncomfortable precedent in British political history. In 1969-70, the British Labour government under Wilson was trying to implement a social contract which it called “In Place Of Strife”. Basically it was trying to get unions to moderate their wage demands in an effort to cut inflation and strengthen the British economy. The unions refused. Labour went to the polls, but partly because of the government’s loss of union support, it lost, and Heath’s Tories came in. Heath’s government implemented a social contract which it called “Fair Deal At Work”, and which was basically the Labour plan under a different name. However, they never managed to resolve the country’s economic problems and as the economy lurched into crisis, with a three-day week, they held another election after a disastrously successful miner’s strike, which they lost. Labour did not win it, however, and Wilson was forced to stagger along in cooperation with the Liberals until the 1976 election brought Callaghan into office with a thin majority.
Callaghan’s government handed over key economic authority in Britain to the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a bailout; famously, he proclaimed that it was impossible for a country to spend itself out of recession, denying two centuries of state interventionism in a single mendacious sentence. The bailout enabled Callaghan’s increasingly unpopular rule to survive until 1979, when yet another strike, by public servants, forced Labour to go to the polls in a desperate attempt to restore its authority. Instead, Thatcher’s Conservatives came in and proceeded to crush the unions, boost finance capital and generally do the spadework for the apotheosis of neoliberalism which was the New Labour government of 1997-2009, of which the Lib-Con coalition is a pale but poisonous shadow.
What has this to do with South Africa today? Just that the South African government is weak and conservative, but nevertheless suffering from a disease which keeps it slightly healthy, namely its traditions of social democracy. This inconvenient social democracy, which makes it so difficult to fire workers, strip the poor of their rights, and generally line up with the corrupt plutocrats who run white civil society, is all that gives the South African government any legitimacy. And it is much loathed by the wannabe plutocrats who sit in the Cabinet. But they don’t know what to do about it because anyone opposing social democracy runs the risk of being trumped by anyone playing even the smallest populist card, such as the Youth League.
What to do about it, surely, is to change the game-plan. At the moment, the loyalty of the ANC’s leadership is, nominally, to the party. The real loyalty of the ANC’s leadership is to themselves, and therefore they support the ANC because they have always supported their party. This is an extremely fragile situation. What happens if the leadership of the ANC and the SACP discover class solidarity and realise that they actually have much more in common with the leaders of the DA, and with the white ruling class, than they have with the people who vote for them? There is certainly a slow convergence between Zuma and the white right, even though this is probably more ideological than electoral.
What’s happening with the COSATU gambit is that COSATU are assuming that the ANC has no choice, in the end, but to give in to them. However, the leadership of the ANC, having been put where they are now by COSATU, cannot be removed from where they are now by COSATU. Zuma and company got their position by a kind of corporate coup, and big business will keep them there so long as they do big business’s bidding. All that COSATU can do is posture and irritate them — in much the same way that COSATU did with Mbeki, of course.
However, Mbeki wasn’t actually a neoliberal, and he didn’t have support from big business. He therefore needed to hold the ANC together under his thumb. (This is probably one reason for his extremely cautious socio-economic policies, which Ha-Joon Chang rightly criticises.) Having the SACP and COSATU yelling at him from across the road was annoying, but fundamentally Mbeki wasn’t going to oppose them, because he didn’t feel that he needed any more enemies.
Paradoxically, the Zuma administration is both safer and more unstable than the Mbeki one. This is because the Zuma crowd are backed by big business, and therefore are safe — except that they don’t know for certain that this will last. Also, they have virtually no ideological or intellectual agenda, which means that they have nothing to hold them on to any course. (They love to have people like Rob Davies around who pretend to pursue policies, but frankly, nobody’s noticed any positive changes in industrial strategy since dear Rob took over, and the Creator’s sad assessment is that there aren’t going to be any such changes.)
What this means is that when the Zuma crowd feel threatened, they are more potentially dangerous. It’s anybody’s guess what they might do in response to COSATU’s behaviour. They might, for instance, try to kick COSATU leaders out of the ANC (which would certainly be legal, since various COSATU leaders have behaved in a way displaying contempt for the party). This was threatened a couple of months ago, it may be recalled. The reason why they might want to do this is that COSATU is attacking the ANC in a way calculated to undermine its authority and internal discipline, and the Zuma leadership desperately needs an issue to create some kind of discipline before everything goes to hell in the ANC. Provoking conflict with COSATU would be a good way of doing that.
Of course, COSATU might knuckle under and allow COSATU leaders to be expelled, but it’s more likely that, being a trade union, they would stand by their leaders, who would then huff and puff and blow down the Tripartite Alliance. They might then go off and form their own party, which would probably do almost as well as CoPe has done, siphoning another fraction of ANC support away. However, they wouldn’t do much better than that — COSATU’s contribution to ANC election successes has not been substantial for the last decade, however much they contributed in 1994.
But with COSATU outside the Alliance, the business-friendly avatars of Zuma and Sexwale would have a strong argument for slapping the Left down. What would they have to lose? Are the voters going to go off and vote for Vavi? Calls for more “market-friendly” policies, like privatisation and like “labour market flexibility” (i.e. gutting the Labour Relations Act) would get a lot more traction — in fact, something of that kind would probably happen, and in that case, the ANC’s support would nose-dive. Meanwhile, most probably, the economy wouldn’t be doing any better, so the ANC’s popularity would be increasingly unstable.
In other words, if the Zuma government takes a hard line with COSATU, this could start a landslide which would end with the ANC haemorrhaging support to right and left, basically to DA and to whatever ragbag of ersatz leftism COSATU was able to gin up. Roger Southall once suspected that COSATU might pick up 20% of the vote. At the moment, if it picked up 16%, it could push the ANC below the 50% threshold. But under the chaotic political confusion which would prevail after the collapse of the Tripartite Alliance, it’s likely that the DA would also pick up support. Imagine a 28% DA, a 16% Workers’ Party and a 10% collection of joke parties confronting a 46% ANC. Who would the ANC align itself with? Under the conditions of reactionary resentment likely to prevail after such an election result, why not align with the DA in order to smack the Workers’ Party in the chops?
And if that happened, the long-term consequences for South African organised labour would be every bit as disastrous as the consequences of Thatcher’s victory over the miners in 1984 was for British organised labour. It’s a worrying possibility, and it’s obviously not something that the South African left is wasting much time thinking about.
Or are they, possibly, looking forward to it?


On Strike.

August 31, 2010

As the joke goes, how do you tell when a civil servant is on strike? Perhaps the punch-line is that she moves her arse slightly more. At least, the nurses and teachers and bureaucrats blocking gates and chasing parents and singing and dancing are showing more vigour than they demonstrate when they are doing what they quaintly claim to be their jobs.
We all have to be a little careful to pick our way through a minefield of agendas, some of which can blow your foot clean into your mouth if you step on them. For instance, many people assume, on principle, that any strike is either legitimate (on the principle that the workers have the right to whatever they want) or illegitimate (on the principle that the bosses have the right to whatever they want). On the other hand, many assume that a strike is illegitimate when carried out against a private corporation (because the bosses of private corporations are necessarily good, decent and just) but legitimate when carried out against the government (because the government is run by a party which you happen not to support).
What is the August 2010 civil service strike about? The government is offering a 7% pay increase (0.5% higher than their original offer), which is approximately 2% above the rate of inflation. The civil servants are demanding 8,6%, exactly what their original offer was. So the issue is about 1.6%.
If we look at civil service salaries, these teachers and nurses are earning quite a lot of money. Qualified teachers get about R20 000 a month, and qualified nurses get around R15 000. (SADTU has raised a stink about the Minister of Education publishing the salary notches of teachers, claiming that this is misleading. To be precise, it isn’t misleading, but it doesn’t reflect the fact that many teachers are hopelessly unqualified and therefore are getting less than what was published. Of course, those teachers shouldn’t be there in the first place, since they have had ten years to improve their qualifications and have not bothered to do so, but the Ministry of Education is not going to get rid of them, partly because Kader Asmal wrecked the teacher training colleges and there is thus a desperate shortage of teachers, and partly because all the lazy, incompetent and unqualified teachers are SADTU members.)
If you get R20 000 a month, then you take home around 12-13 000. The extra 1.6% will thus increase a teacher’s salary by maybe R200 a month, and a nurse’s salary by maybe R150 a month. That isn’t hay, but it isn’t an enormous amount either. To be blunt, this strike is not conspicuously about money and it obviously isn’t about a living wage. It is about COSATU trying to throw its weight around with the government, and establishing its authority. Most probably this is not because COSATU is trying to improve its political position in the Tripartite Alliance, however — it has no real agenda which it is pursuing, so it has no reason to do this — but, rather, trying to keep its declining membership in line by stirring up distrust for the government — and thus for the ANC, of course. The SACP is joining in this, partly as a knee-jerk reaction, and partly because it also needs to keep trying to sustain the illusion that it has any left-wing credentials.
However, there are two problems with this.
Problem one is that it obviously annoys the government. The ANC is quite sensitive about being attacked, and is painfully aware that when COSATU attacks it, the ANC’s credibility as a party sympathetic to black workers is under threat. Meanwhile, because COSATU’s attacks are of course echoed by the white right wing (which has nothing to lose by supporting COSATU, since this helps divide the Alliance and undermine the ANC, while it is making no commitment to support COSATU should it ever get into power) these attacks also appear in the press. (There they are muted only because the press is quite sympathetic to Zuma, because he is sympathetic to the white right wing and big business generally. This is why Zuma has sat out the strike; his electoral constituency and his financial constituency pull in different directions, and he has no personal principles to guide him.)
The ANC is largely run by big businessmen pretending to be friends of the workers. In the end, however, they are big businessmen first. The danger of a faux-left strike movement denouncing the ANC is that it strengthens the line of those ANC leaders who support neoliberalism. If the ANC turns on the workers, they do not have the power to accomplish anything. The ANC can win this strike, in which case COSATU will lose it, and that would empower people in the ANC (such as Sexwale) who want a general rollback of workers’ rights. That isn’t going to happen overnight, but it’s a dangerous kind of fire to be playing with.
Problem two is the “labour aristocracy” problem. The workers going on strike and putting on a big act of being oppressed are the petit-bourgeoisie. They earn maybe four or five times what a genuine worker earns, and many of the workers don’t enjoy the luxury of going on strike because they aren’t unionised, partly as a result of the collapse of private sector union organisation. Such people, and the comparable number of people who are unemployed and earning virtually nothing, are unlikely to feel automatic sympathy with middle-class people who want an extra bottle of whisky a month and don’t care how many scholars fail their exams or babies die for want of attention in the process. There’s not a lot of class solidarity likely to be evident here; on the contrary, there’s room for resentment. This is obviously not going to be reflected in press coverage, since the press couldn’t give two hoots what the actual workers think or do, but it opens a dangerous breach between unionised and non-unionised workers. This can be exploited by business, especially because the unionised workers are so dominated by unions based in the government sector, who are vulnerable to a change of government policy but who love to pretend that they get what they want, not because the government doesn’t want to antagonise the unions for political reasons, but because they are so very objectively powerful.
We are being told, of course, that the strike is harming the economy. This is probably not very significant. If a million workers go on strike, obviously this harms the economy to some extent; the economy loses their productivity. If more learners fail their exams then their entry into the economy is delayed; if sick people remain sick for longer, or die, the economy loses something from that. If bureaucrats don’t do their jobs, important tasks fail to be completed. However, this will only have maximum effect after weeks rather than days of strike action, as with the 2007 strike.
We are also being told that giving in to the workers will harm the economy. This is a line invariably taken by anti-worker propagandists such as corporate economists, but it may have a lick of truth. A million people earning an average of R150 000 a year makes R150 billion a year, or 5% of GDP. If they get an increase of 1,6%, that’s R2.4 billion, which is just under 0.1% of GDP. With the budget deficit supposedly running at 6.6% of GDP (it’s probably really more), giving in to the strikers will make that 6.7%. This isn’t exactly going to break the bank, but with the deficit running at double the economic growth rate, every little hurts. (At the moment, with interest rates low, the deficit is less of a problem than it was a couple of years ago — but it seems there is another economic crisis looming, which could send interest rates up again and thus make servicing the swelling debt more expensive and thus making the current deficit more damaging.)
The difficulty for the ANC in trying to challenge the strike is obvious. As the government, it looks powerful when the unions look weak, even though this isn’t politically true. As the employer, it looks stingy when the unions look reasonable, even though the unions are being fairly unreasonable by refusing to reduce their demands at all, and the government is clearly fairly short of cash right now and in the foreseeable future.
More to the point, Zuma’s ANC lacks credibility on the issue of wanting to save money. It has massively increased its own salaries and perquisites. This was almost inevitable, since Zuma’s allies were virtually all concerned with personal gain rather than political agenda; they have to be bribed to keep them in line because Zuma lacks the political clout to do this in any other way. This means, however, that unions can say “If that Cabinet Minister gets to stay in a five-star hotel, why can’t we have our wages substantially increased?” and get a sympathetic hearing from workers. (Also, of course, from conservatives who wouldn’t dream of criticising private-enterprise CEOs for doubling their own salaries but profess horror when politicians soup up their perks.) The real problem with this is that the Cabinet is small and the public service is large, so public service increases hit the fiscus harder than anything Nzimande or Sexwale or Nyanda get up to. However, understandably nobody would listen to that sort of argument. A better argument would be to point out that if we need to save cash, then everybody needs to tighten there belts, and therefore instead of paying nurses and teachers more, we should pay Cabinet Ministers and MPs less. But unfortunately Zuma can’t use this argument because his allies would raise a rumpus if anyone suggested that their wallets suffer a stapling.
Meanwhile, an awkward problem is that some public service workers have already received increases a lot larger than the increases which the nurses and teachers want. Basically, because Zuma’s government backed down in those cases, this creates the false impression that there is plenty of money in the kitty. Why should nurses and teachers not, then, get their snouts in the same trough?
Part of the problem, of course, is that the large increases have often been in cases where the salaries were pretty low. Workers in a North-West platinum mine have received massive increases, but they were getting peanuts — and therefore, still are. Increasing the salaries of poorly-paid workers serves to increase social equality. But increasing the salaries of well-paid middle-class workers serves to increase social inequality, a fact which COSATU and everybody else is ignoring because it doesn’t suit the spurious image of the heroic worker which they are cultivating. However, increasing social inequality is what the Zuma government and their corporate friends seem most concerned with. Hence, perhaps, we should not be surprised if the Zuma government eventually caves in on this strike.
If there were any kind of plan for how to manage public spending over the next few years such problems might be fitted in to it. There seems, however, to be no plan, only a wish-list of might-have-beens. As a result, the unions will continue to squabble over their imaginary cake, as do the Cabinet Ministers and their corporate cronies, until some political hyena backed by corporate sharks stops the music and ends the game. And probably takes the whole cake for himself.


More Than Somewhat.

August 6, 2010

So I am standing on a street corner in the part of the Big City known as the Yeoville Waterfront on a cold winter’s night wondering where my next thin dime is to come from. This Waterfront is not exactly a Waterfront and it is not precisely in Yeoville either but I am not such a guy as asks too many questions about such matters. I figure in this town a guy has enough troubles without creating such troubles as tend to be created by getting a reputation for asking too many questions. Furthermore a guy does not need to ask too many questions if he has ears of good quality and is careful not to pursue any activities such as are liable to get his ears sliced right off.
It is while I am standing there, admiring some young ladies of elegant attire and listening to music with decided drum and bass through doorways, that I happen to be seen by someone whom I have known around these parts, and who is called McGurk, and who comes up to me and makes sounds resembling those possibly made by a hippopotamus with double pneumonia, but which I gather are intended to show that he is nearly as sad as I am, and maybe more so.
“Well,” say I, “and how are we this evening, which all things considered is a fine evening, if a trifle cool?”
“Fucked,” expresses McGurk. McGurk is a fine figure of a man and when he grasps me by the shoulder and propels me through a doorway and up against the bar, I am the last guy to complain. Indeed people who complain about the things which McGurk does often face difficulties in their subsequent careers. So I am happy to provide one of my last thin dimes to buy McGurk some spirituous refreshment, on the basis of which McGurk explains that he is in extremis with the law, whose representatives wish to fit McGurk with an orange jump-suit with CORRECTIONAL SERVICES written on it frequently. McGurk feels that orange does not suit his eye colour, and that in any case, being such a fine figure of a man, about two and a half metres tall and maybe two metres across, there will be no jump-suits available in his size.
I inquire what may the matter be, and what frame is being hung on him this time, this being the sensible way to phrase such questions. McGurk explains that he is blamed for offing Brett Kebble. Now, offing people is something for which McGurk is by way of acquiring something of a reputation. In these times people are offed left and right around the countryside, although personally I have a strong objection to visiting the countryside under any circumstances. But of course, while there is a deal of social embarrassment to do with offing people, and those performing the offing process are not always welcome at the best parties, still I am not one who will express prejudice on these matters. Indeed, many contend that those people being offed are often surplus to requirements.
But somehow it is strange that so many people are offed when McGurk is nearby. I once suggest to him that he join an organisation called the Surplus People’s Project because of this, but McGurk says he is not interested in politics. It is true, however, that when a person is offed in Pietersburg, McGurk happens to be visiting that town that day, and when a person, or maybe several persons, happen to be offed in Potchefstroom, McGurk is leaving that town a few minutes later. In these times the names of towns are constantly changed for reasons which are no doubt good, but some suggest that these changes are due to McGurk’s friends, so that McGurk can tell anyone asking questions about an offing in Potchefstroom that he is in Tlokwe that day, or about an offing in Pietersburg, that he is far away in Polokwane.
I am not going to seek details on this matter, but it transpires that McGurk is one of three people who are blamed for having offed Brett. It seems that there is quite a queue around Brett’s roadster that night, or maybe a lot of pushing and shoving, so that it is a miracle that nobody is shot, by reason of road-rage, except maybe Brett himself, of course. But McGurk is particularly incensed when he is being accused of murder, which he considers a very insulting term, indeed. He informs me that Brett is by way of committing self-slaughter, so that in fact nobody is to blame for the offing except maybe Brett himself, who is naturally hard to catch, these days.
Now it is true I know McGurk from the old days (although I am not such a person as will handle a Roscoe, except under very special circumstances, and indeed I do not know one end from the other to speak of) and so I buy him another spirituous beverage. I am careful not to buy McGurk too many, however, for I know that when McGurk has taken several on board he is apt to become highly critical of the interior decorations of his drinking places, and indeed to disintegrate those decorations and scatter them around, along with the interior decorators and practically anybody standing near them. It is because I have no wish to see these things happen that I fail to mention that I am personally not ill-acquainted with Brett from the old days.
I am very careful not to speak of this until McGurk leaves, but I can remember Brett once says to me that he is very unhappy. Brett is a guy who has plentiful potatoes, but there are those who spread stories that he has not so many potatoes as he pretends, or that he takes his potatoes from fields which do not belong to him, such as the pension funds. In fact, there are those who say that Brett is nothing more nor less than a hoopla artist or a fraudster, which are terms liable to make people such as Brett extremely displeased when such terms are applied to them, since when such terms are bandied about it becomes extremely difficult to chisel potatoes out of people. I am aware of these things because I am a guy about town who does the best he can, and while I am not conversant with such excellent circles as Brett moves in, he and I can see eye to eye, especially since Brett is by no means exceedingly tall.
Brett is a pleasant person, or not unpleasant, or anyway any person with such a supply of potatoes is not going to hear from me that he is unpleasant. Hence it is easy for me to introduce him to people who may assist him in ensuring a steady supply of such potatoes, except that the supply sometimes miscarries, or the potatoes turn out to be mouldy, or when the box is opened it turns out to contain not potatoes but some less savoury things. Here I am speaking of potatoes, but of course by potatoes I mean lucre, which is not always so filthy as those who have not got it pretend. (I am not speaking ill of potatoes, of course, which are nutritious, especially when eaten in an Irish stew.) Brett is in trade, and the things which he trades are valuable, but somehow this proves not to be so valuable as it seems when push comes to shove, as it usually does. In any case my help is of little value to Brett, and at the time I speak of he is down to his last half billion, which causes him to be extremely miserable. I am not going to tell him, of course, that if I am down to my last half billion, or even half million, I am going to consider myself most particularly well set up, indeed.
But it seems that this half billion is itself not even Brett’s own half personal billion but is already lost in trade, and Brett is to give it up, and give up his company, and his mansion, and other such things of this and other ilks. So Brett throws back his spirituous beverage (and Brett is a good judge of spirituous beverages so this shows that he is in a specially sad mood) and says “I wish that I were dead!”.
When a person has so many potatoes as Brett claims to possess, even if those potatoes do not actually exist in the warehouse or the field, it is usually said that his wish is much like a command, and what he says goes. So I am not surprised to hear soon after that Brett is dead. My concern is merely if Brett means what he says, and is happy to leave this vale of tears, or if he changes his mind at all when he sobers up, and whether whoever offs Brett therefore does something which displeases Brett. Although after the fact I admit that it is all much the same in the end.
So I am sitting in a drinking place on the Yeoville Waterfront, feeling alternately cold and warm, being extremely careful in my speech as to tell the truth I always am, when I see someone come through the door by the name of Clinton, whom I know from a long time ago. I am usually very pleased to see old friends because there is always an opportunity to discuss old times with them but on this particular occasion I am a little troubled because McGurk and Clinton also know each other from a long time ago. It can be said that these two are no longer such firm friends as formerly, in fact they are spoken of as having had a falling-out in the same sense that the city of Hiroshima had a falling-out, and I am apprehensive that there may be violence of some kind. (I am such a guy as does not applaud violence of any kind, being a most peaceful character at all times.) But fortunately this does not take place, perhaps because Clinton is coming in with two persons who are almost as fine figures of men as McGurk, and who are also carrying exceedingly large John Roscoes on their hips.
This does not so much disconcert me as it disconcerts me when McGurk walks out, giving Clinton one look only which is not the look of a friend, and Clinton comes and sits at my table and suggests that I may wish to buy him a drink, not worrying about the effects of the drink because one of the two persons with John Roscoes is also Clinton’s driver. However it seems this is not the right time to speak of thin dimes and such matters, so I provide the necessary and hope to hear what Clinton has to say, and not to interrupt, for Clinton is quite particular about not appreciating being interrupted, and the two persons with John Roscoes (which are actually 9mm Glocks in quick-release holsters with 19-round magazines) are liable to beat me on the schnozzle with them if I am not respectful to Clinton.
Clinton is what may be called the head of security for Brett and I assume he is in town for the same reason that McGurk is in town, which proves to be very nearly the case. To be precise he is in town for the opposite reason, because McGurk is in town to be fitted for the orange jump-suit while Clinton is in town to fit McGurk with said jump-suit. I am surprised to learn that Clinton is not happy to be doing this thing, for I am aware that Clinton considers McGurk as little better than a pantsula, a pantsula being such a guy as is unwelcome in the right circles, though he is considered most useful by those who wish special tasks to be performed, such as offing people, or separating them from their lucre. A pantsula is expected to go away somewhere else once the task is performed, as indeed McGurk has done.
“Yes,” says Clinton, “McGurk is a bad egg, and in fact I am even told he is once an impimpi.” (An impimpi is a pantsula with friends in the constabulary forces, and while I have every respect for the constabulary forces I will not choose to count them as my friends if I have any option in the matter, which I usually do not.)
When I express the proper surprise, Clinton goes on to say “But I believe it is nothing more nor less than a frame which is being hung on McGurk, and if it is not hung on McGurk it will be hung on one of the other two, or perhaps it will be hung on me. For it seems that someone wishes to see a frame hung on someone. I wish I knew someone who knew someone who knew something. You have the reputation of being a guy who knows and it is exceedingly interesting to me that I hear you are sitting at a table with McGurk and he is telling you stories. I do not wish to appear intrusive but I am very interested in stories.”
“McGurk is expecting to be fitted for a jumpsuit,” say I, not wishing to arouse ire. “He is not such a guy as will spread stories unnecessarily, except stories of the type which may be repeated in mixed company without blushes or gasps. Nobody says that he is not a reputable guy, impimpi or not.”
“I am not so sure that you are telling me the whole truth,” says Clinton, in a manner which personally I find most offensive although I naturally do not show this in my expression. “For two pins I can invite you to step outside with Jack and John to have a consultation on the subject of speaking truth to power. In fact, for less than two pins.”
“Well,” say I, “I have no desire to participate in such a consultation. Anyone around town will tell you that I am a most cooperative person. On the other hand, I am happy to be sitting here and I do not particularly wish to leave, not even in the company of your honourable friends, meaning no offense to themselves or yourself. If I am in the company of McGurk anyone will tell you that I have no connections with McGurk whatsoever and I can honestly say I take no pleasure in meeting him again after our long separation which took place at my initiative. Or do you not believe my word of honour as a gentleman?”
I can see from the expression on his face that he is not satisfied with this, and I greatly apprehend that he intends to deliver a statement in connection with my status as a man of integrity which both of us will eventually regret. But fortunately at this moment the television set appears to become very loud, and this is not because some proud soccer supporter turns up the volume, but because everyone else in the establishment grows very quiet, which is unusual given the spirituous refreshment served at such establishments.
What happens is that another guy whom I know from the old days, namely Glenn, comes through the door. When Glenn comes in people naturally fall silent, partly out of respect and partly out of the fear that if they speak it may be written down and passed on to someone in authority. Glenn is a very serious example of my personal philosophy that it is ill-advised to spend too much time in the company of members of the constabulary, as this invariably brings on trouble of a kind which is not easily set right. Indeed because of his bad choice of companions, Glenn is being fitted for an orange jump-suit as part of the frame which I happen to know is being hung on McGurk, and as Glenn is very, very particular about his haberdashery indeed, Glenn is not glad to be considering this costumery.
Clinton looks at Glenn and Glenn looks at Clinton and for a moment there is a moment which reminds me of the old days, and I fear that something may happen, but it is clear that neither party wishes to return to the old days. Instead Clinton gets up and goes out with his friends and their John Roscoes. I am grateful that I am familiar with this establishment in the old days when it has another name, because this means that I happen to know a way of getting from this establishment into another establishment and from there to the taxi rank, so that if Clinton and his friends are waiting for me in expectation of a more structured interview, they are going to wait until hell freezes over, which is in my view a desirable outcome, as Clinton is such a man as does not appreciate cool climates.
“Good evening,” I say to Glenn when he approaches.
“What is good about it?” asks Glenn, and under the circumstances I have to confess that it is a hard question to answer, though naturally I always believe in looking on the bright side of life.
“Well,” I say, “there are so many reminders of the good old days passing through this establishment that it is almost as if the good old days are back.”
“I am not so sure that they are ever good or ever gone,” he replies, sitting down, although I do not invite him to, he being always prepared to defy the wishes of the general public.
This is not always true, however, because Glenn is in the importing trade. There has been a time when he is importing people — although this is not the usual importation, such as lithe ladies from Slovakia. No, Glenn instead has ways of moving people around without anyone knowing about them. If sometimes the people do not get where they expect to go, and if indeed they are sometimes never seen again, this is not Glenn’s fault, or at least this is what Glenn says, and I am not going to be the first guy to contradict Glenn, especially when he is in a very unsympathetic mood because like Brett he is experiencing problems.
Unlike Brett he finds his way to a kind of importing trade which generates considerable lucre, namely importing worthwhile spice to smoke in a hookah. This is a very agreeable and healthy way of passing time, especially since Glenn provides aromatic spice which is extremely relaxing to smoke. I am personally fond of such spices,, although they is by way of being illegal. But Glenn does not mind because he has his friend from the constabulary to stand by him. Which is why he is now standing in a place where he is liable to be fitted for an orange jump-suit.
“So, how is it going with you, then, Glenn,” I inquire because I do not like the silence which keeps falling whenever Glenn is around, not because I need an answer or to ask a question.
“The usual,” he says. This is a good answer by any standard, and which makes it possible for me to spend almost my very last thin dime on some spirituous refreshment for him. Then he tells me the usual story about how things are not going well but he sees clearly now and the future is not bright but he has hope. I tell him he is in a bad way but I am sure it could be worse and that he must be careful to make sure he has the right sort of friends. I do not listen very carefully while I am talking because what I am saying is nothing but shooting the breeze, something which I am happy to shoot any time. But Glenn has nothing else to do and nobody else to help him, and also nobody to buy refreshment for him (although he is a man who buys a good deal in his time). Then he proceeds to talk in a way which suggests that he is not listening to me either and not deeply considering his personal interests. But I listen.
It is maybe the middle of the small hours of the morning when I make it back to my newspaper office where I write this all down and e-mail it to certain guys and dolls who e-mail it back to me so that I am free to pretend that it came from them. This is how I make my living and if it is not always of themost salubrious, it is steady. It is not wise to admit that you know too many things in this town. I am the kind of guy who wishes to be modest about his knowledge. This is because I am, more than somewhat, the kind of guy who wants to live a long time.


Secrets and Lies.

August 6, 2010

There are some very loudly orchestrated complaints about how the new proposed secrecy bill and the hinted-at media tribunal will destroy journalism in South Africa. The orchestration and the complaints are predominantly coming from journalists, of course. This is very like the nineteenth-century campaign by crooked shipowners against the introduction of the Plimsoll line which was intended to prevent overloading and thus discourage the then-common practice of sending out unmaintained, overloaded ships with scratch crews and then taking out a whopping insurance policy on said ships. (When the Plimsoll line was made compulsory, one innovative crooked shipowner painted it on the funnel.)
Now, what is all this about? Currently, South African information classification is in chaos, like everything to do with intelligence operations in this country. The draft bill is intended to bring order to the chaos by identifying the procedures for classifying information at various levels of secrecy and by fixing penalties for violating these procedures. Order, one would think, is good. Also, all governments do things which they don’t want the general public to know about because a serious fuss might injure the national interest, whatever that might mean in practice.
Meanwhile, journalists at the moment are more or less immune to penalties for telling lies. If a journalist is caught lying about anything to do with government or ANC, the vast conglomerate employing the journalist will send lawyers in defense. The judiciary has established a clear precedent that any lie told about the government or the ANC can be defended on the grounds of “public interest”; that is, even if the journalist knew it wasn’t true, it might have been true, so the public has a right to be misinformed. (None of this applies to opposition parties and obviously not to private citizens, though journalists very rarely lie about opposition parties or about private citizens of any significance — of course, only very wealthy private citizens can take newspapers to court.) This looks like a problem in need of a solution which a media tribunal might exist to provide.
On the other hand, can we trust the government not to abuse such powers? At the moment, the South African media enjoy rights similar to those enjoyed by the American media. (The difference between them is that the American media can, generally, be drawn into line by waving the flag and appealing to patriotism, concepts which the South African media find incomprehensible.) The proposals would make South African law more like British law, enabling the government to suppress information which it found embarrassing and to punish newspapers and journalists stepping out of bounds. The British government routinely abuses such powers to bring the media to heel (one of the last holdouts, oddly enough, was the BBC, eventually squashed by the Hutton Commission for telling the truth about the Iraq War).
If the media were brought to heel in South Africa, if it were banned from printing sensitive information and terrorised into compliance with government doctrine, this would make very little difference in the media’s service to the public interest. At the moment, the media can make up political lies, meaning that we do not know whether what we read is true — so people believe the media according to their political preconceptions. The media are also unanimously in pursuit of a narrow political doctrine, essentially neoliberalism with a lick of white racial supremacy. So, if the media were instead forced to conceal truths rather than invent lies, and cleave to an ANC-oriented political line, all which would have changed would be the doctrines being presented. The essential practice and the moral bankruptcy would not change.
Most political journalists, where they are not making stuff up, depend on leaks and smears. Leaks and smears are either manufactured for the occasion (mainly by the right-wing, mainly foreign-funded think-tanks which have taken over civil society) or they are provided for political purposes by factions within the Tripartite Alliance — this latter is where almost all the reliable information in the media comes from. This latter is a very convenient procedure for Alliance politicians, so it is not going to be stopped by legislation. All which might have to happen would be that some of the politicians would have more trouble getting their leaks published than others — but this would probably depend very largely on how much political and economic pull their contacts possessed.
However, it is one thing to say that journalists are sluggards, crooks and liars. It is another to pass the Promotion of Sluggards, Crooks and Liars Act of 2010. Even if it made the situation no worse, it would make room for the situation to get worse, just as journalists under apartheid used apartheid media legislation to excuse their corruption and toadying. The fact that the journalists whining about the proposed curbs are politically bigoted and personally dishonest does not make the curbs a good thing.
That being settled, there remains an interesting question: what is the agenda behind the proposed curbs on the free flow of information? Is it likely that South Africa suddenly has a spurt of state secrets? If we had a dynamic state it is perfectly possible that there would be some legitimate secrets; if the government were importing thorium from North Korea to fuel a clutch of breeder reactors, or running guns to the Colombian resistance, or in possession of footage of Robert Mugabe getting a blow-job from Peter Mandelson, it would be prudent to prevent the information from getting out. However, we don’t have a dynamic state and we probably have few secrets of any importance from anybody. Commercial secrets may be important, but they don’t really need special laws to protect them — they just require the existing commercial laws to be enforced, instead of being winked at, as now.
One plausible reason for the new information classification bill is essentially personal. The President is a former ANC spook whose power-base depends heavily on former ANC and MK spooks. One of his cronies, Mo Shaik, who is remarkably incompetent by any sane standard, was recently put in charge of South African spookdom. Spooks are not brave combatants or brainiacs; they exist not to provide information, but to control its flow. If people knew what spooks know, they would know that the spooks know very little, so to preserve their illusion of competence, spooks rely on secrecy. Spooks also rely on bureaucracy, as a shield behind which they can conceal their ignorance and incompetence. Also, of course, bureaucracy plus secrecy is a shield for corruption, and the Shaik family is monumentally corrupt, a corruption which the present government shares.
If this is so, then the media is making a fuss about nothing (which is the media’s speciality, of course). Of course, the media would do this anyway. In order to hide their fundamental corruption, they are brandishing these proposed curbs as an attack on the people’s right to have the media tell the lies the media want to tell to them, instead of the lies someone else wants the people to hear. A sober examination of the media’s treatment of all this is generally disgusting, although there are a few still, small voices to say that all this matters not at all, because the ANC is not actually going to go through with these curbs. Certainly, if it is all a matter of the vanity of incompetent spies and a hangover from the absurd notion that the press, which sucked Zuma’s poisonous tit throughout his campaign, is somehow anti-Zuma and needs to be forced into the paths of unrighteousness, we need not take this crap seriously. It is all then a public relations campaign on every side.
But what if there is more to it than this? The question of the media tribunal is something which one would not really expect the ANC to pursue seriously. Now that power is in the hands of the crooks who clustered around Zuma, it no longer matters all that much that they shriek at each other like fishwives with Tourette’s in the pages of Business Day and the Mail and Guardian. This is entertaining, and serves to hint at who is on the way up and who down, but it does not decide anything. Hence a media tribunal will not make a major political difference to the interests of the people who are ostensibly calling for it.
On the other hand, if journalists are called before a media tribunal to answer for their political bias, unless they are carefully prevented from doing so, they will reply that they have been bought by politicians, and that their political analyses were written for them by politicians’ spin-doctors. In other words, a media tribunal could completely discredit what remains of the perception of journalistic integrity, but would also reveal the horrible fact that the facade of journalistic integrity (and of politicians’ supposed hostility to journalism) conceals the fact that journalism and party politics are two tentacles of the same corporate octopus. (Apologies to Paul the Psychic Cephalopod.)
In that case the politicians and the ruling class have good reasons for not upsetting the apple-cart and introducing a media tribunal. (Of course there could be a media tribunal along the lines of the military tribunals in the United States, held in secret and with nothing but the verdict made known — but this would destroy the whole political point of the exercise.) So, why are they enthusiastically talking about doing it? Why should we take them seriously? For we should — these are the same terms in which they talked about abolishing the Scorpions, and next to that action, introducing a media tribunal would be an almost trivial episode.
A few years back the press suddenly received some black or brown editors of white newspapers. Felicia Oppelt [note the Creator’s creative spelling here] took over the Daily Dispatch, Ferial Haffajee took over the Mail and Guardian, Mondli Makhanya at the Sunday Times. All are gone now, and white power restored, but the move was surely significant. It also coincided with the rise to centrality of black pundits who plagiarised the articles, language and ideas of white journalists. Many of these, again, are gone, or replaced at least by reliable American coffee-coloured sell-outs like Eusebius McKaiser. The reason for this experiment was, surely, that the whites who run the media recognised that having white faces fronting the media discouraged black people from believing a word the media said. The theory was that rubbish talked by black people would be believed by black people, since black people are notoriously stupid and racist. It doesn’t seem to have turned out that well, since the easiest way to win over a black audience is by jeering at Moeletsi Mbeki or Xolela Mangcu. However, the plan was, in principle, the same as the electoral strategy of the Democratic Alliance, which will probably succeed in the long run.
The problem with having black people as fronts is not just that they are black. No doubt the owners of our media are racist, but they aren’t as racist as that. No, the problem is that black people may have come from the wrong background. The owners are well prepared to identify white people who hold the wrong opinions, or might be seduced into holding the wrong opinions — the kind of people who might lead their newspapers down the wrong track, by failing to identify precisely what the ruling class wants, or even pursuing non-ruling-class agendas. But it’s much harder for white power-mongers to identify properly subservient black people. Recall the embarrassment of Wits University having to purge Deputy Vice-Chancellor Makgoba when he made trouble. Recall the way that Tsedu, the former black editor of the Sunday Times, failed to print Zuma smears on demand and had to be replaced. It’s much safer to have trustworthy, reliable white people in charge — and yet since everybody knows that they are only there because they can be trusted to tell the right lies, nobody with any critical sense believes them. Cleft stick city.
But what if there were a media tribunal? What if there were serious laws against revealing state secrets, especially if such secrets were artfully ill-defined? Why, then, you could practice self-censorship. Management would then have much more control over the content provided by the media — every editor would be concerned that if the wrong stuff were printed, management would have a copper-bottomed pretext for dismissal. And a perfect alibi for such control-freakery — it’s not I who is forcing you to suppress truths and instead publish lies, it’s the bad, bad ANC government! I am just as opposed to censorship as you are, but, regrettably, we have to acknowledge realities . . .
This is exactly the line the English press took under apartheid. It enabled them to pretend to rail at the oppressive government while secretly cooperating closely with it. The period since 1994 has been a nervous and tense time for media moguls precisely because there has always been a danger that some damned journalist might stumble out of line and inadvertently print something embarrassing to the ruling class. The Selebi and Agliotti trials show just how dangerous this could be — there have been heroically successful efforts to conceal the facts in both cases, erasing the tentative fumblings of a few investigators and commentators to suggest that something might be spurious about the ridiculous lies of the official narratives. With the media moguls and the politicians arm-in-arm in unshakeable alliance against truth, justice and democracy, we can expect a bright future for psychosis in South Africa.


Lost Victories.

August 6, 2010

Recently, the Creator was listening to someone being smug on the radio.
This is, of course, not unusual on the radio, but this was a “labour market analyst”; that is, a person paid by rich corporations to legitimate their struggle to crush the working class. The analyst’s line, which the Creator accepts, is that these corporations are doing very well. He pointed out that there have been hardly any strikes in the private sector in the last half-decade. Instead, there have been immense strikes in the public sector. Wages in the private sector have risen very modestly, wages in the public sector have shot up. However, there seems to be no interaction between these.
His line was that the private sector has sorted out the problem, and now it’s just necessary to get the government on board. He was delighted that the government has adopted the corporate principle of “performance-related pay”, because this, he hoped, means ultimately that the government’s wage offers will come more and more in line with corporate wage offers. Then everybody will have low expectations, and there won’t be strikes anywhere, and everything will be just fine.
At one point he even blurted out the reason why this is happening. The reason is the lack of jobs. Because the private sector doesn’t create jobs — instead, destroys them — it can pay workers less. Fewer workers producing the same goods at lower wages — why, that’s paradise! No wonder CEOs are getting such high salaries. In addition, the trade unions are not fighting for jobs. Instead, the trade unions have shifted their attention to public service employees, because the government is not (as yet) going to shut down schools, hospitals and police stations (although outsourcing has reduced the number of municipal state employees in many areas). In other words, the trade unions have played along with private sector companies in not protecting jobs, possibly because they decided that it was a lost battle, but most probably because the trade unions are mostly led by people with big business connections who were happy to go along with what their friends in Sandton asked for.
Ouch.
The last big of smugness to come from this person was a reassurance that jobs would be created eventually. We just needed to crush the working class completely, and then we would get 6% economic growth rate (or was it 7%?) and then jobs would be created. Only a high economic growth rate could create jobs. South Africa is on another planet from the United States (where they managed, under Clinton, to create jobs with a 3% growth rate). Of course, if we did have a 7% growth rate, there would be no shortage of experts telling us that we needed an 8% growth rate before jobs would be created. The bottom line is to provide excuses for increasing unemployment.
Just as the labour market analyst was about to finish his spiel, the iron-shod boots of the Revolutionary Guard thumped into the studio and he was grabbed away from the microphone and carried away, shrieking in terror, to the Special People’s Tribunal which sentenced him to ten years on a re-education sorghum farm outside Kakamas. However, there are plenty more where he came from.
Now, the real question is, why is the previous paragraph false, and why are the earlier paragraphs true?
Recently, Jacob Zuma did something right. (No! Go on! He never — did he?) What had happened was that the repressive dictatorship of Swaziland, the repressive one-party-state of Botswana, and the hapless Bantustan of Lesotho banded together and cried “No more!” to the Southern African Customs Union. They signed a special deal with the European Union under which, in exchange for bribes and trivial favours, the European Union could use them as conduits for dumping European goods on the South African market. Faced with the spectacle of half of the members of the SACU bent over with their pants down waggling their bums at him, Zuma called a meeting and said something or other to the three dissidents which led them to pledge to go back to the EU and say “Oops, our bad, we misquoted ourselves out of context” and abandon their deal. Maybe they will even do that (depends what Big Jake told them, the Creator hypothesizes). This was the first concrete thing which has been done to protect South African employment since Thabo Mbeki was kicked down the steps of the Union Buildings.
Now, this concrete thing is also a rather trivial one, but it also indicates what can be done if the government uses the power which it possesses. If the government wanted to, it could promote employment. This can be done both in the rest of Africa (which does South Africa good because this would improve our trade with Africa and therefore boost employment here as well) and in South Africa proper, through sensible promotion and protection of domestic markets. (The global economic crisis, and particularly the G8’s decision to commit economic seppuku by driving the short-sword of public spending cuts through the belly of their growth rates, makes it much easier for South Africa to break out of the fool’s-gold straitjacket of neoliberalism than in the past.)
One might, then, ask why this isn’t being done here. The answer seems to be that someone doesn’t want it to be done. Someone, probably, very much like this labour market analyst, except someone with actual power, not merely an ignorant and dishonest spin-doctor. Instead, South Africa is proclaiming its intention of imitating the Asian Tigers by pursuing export-oriented growth. Unfortunately nobody out there is importing, and also unfortunately, the African economic climate is nothing like so sympathetic as the Asian climate was in the 1960s and 1970s, and also unfortunately, the United States is not pumping money into our economy for strategic reasons. Hence, Rob Davies is an idiot and his project is a bust from the start. Well, we could have guessed that.
But, it might be argued, why do people not want economic growth? Surely economic growth is the Holy Grail. Indeed, the labour market analyst said that he wanted economic growth. Didn’t he? Why should he lie?
Economic growth in itself means nothing. This is because every activity which entails some kind of cash transaction is counted as economic growth. The joke that an economist’s perfectly productive citizen is a terminal cancer patient going through a disastrous divorce case is, unfortunately, not a joke; money spent on useless things like casinoes, superfluous shopping malls and golf estates, and money obtained through financial manipulation or Ponzi schemes (a distinction without a difference), is what makes our economy currently look healthy. Most of those operations create no real value for the economy and employ very few people, which is why the unemployment rate is so much higher than the current fake figures make it seem.
What is needed is the growth of productive activity which employs numerous people. This is not happening, and there is no prospect of it happening because the ruling class does not want to waste money on it — because “productive” is not as profitable as unproductive, and because they hate hiring people because people have to be paid. Unless the government compels the ruling class to take action, the ruling class will continue to pour its cash away to no long-term benefit for anyone except the ruling class. Which is the point, of course; the ruling class does not want economic growth except economic growth which maximises its own immediate benefits. The fact that in the longer term such benefits might be greater if the investment were made more sensibly is unimportant; the motto of the ruling class is “Gimme, gimme, gimme, now, now, now!”.
Very well, then. The government should take action. Someone needs to compel the government to take action. The unemployed workers should demand that it does something. But what? Do they know what needs to be done? For, surely, nobody is telling them. Or, what they are being told is that those lousy foreigners and those appalling fat-cats in their bloated RDP houses are the problem, and therefore the foreigners need to be chased out and the RDP houses, and the schools, and the libraries, need to be burned down, and then the problem will be solved. (And vote for me at the next municipal election and I pledge a campaign against RDP houses and municipal facilities — viva!)
OK, we can’t expect much from that quarter because unemployed people are given misinformation by the truckload. Luckily, there are employed people in trade unions who have economic advisers. So what is COSATU’s position?
Embarrassingly, COSATU’s position is essentially the same as Rob Davies’. Their line is that nobody needs to take action against big business, but that the government needs to promote exports. They want, of course, a “developmental state”, but it is no more clear what COSATU means by this than what Jacob Zuma means by it, because there is no sign of a plan of any kind to promote employment.
This is, largely, because COSATU’s constituency has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. In 1994 COSATU was a congress of trade unions with members mainly working for large corporations with a minority of members working for the government. In 2010, COSATU is a congress of trade unions with members mainly working for the government with a minority of members working for large corporations.
This is a much bigger change than it sounds like. It has come about largely because large corporations have done their best to shed workers, and most particularly unionized workers. The trade unions have not fought against this with great energy — on the contrary, they have often negotiated settlements (particularly ones benefiting union executives) under which workers lost jobs in exchange for nominally improved conditions for other workers, or for preferential treatment for outsourcing companies which all too often were fronts for union executives. The current situation of low-wage, low-security employment, which the government passed the Basic Conditions of Employment Act to prevent, has happened with the tacit consent of the unions who now complain about it and blame the government for. (Obviously they are afraid of big business, so they daren’t blame them.)
Meanwhile, within the government, there is virtually no hostility to workers and for obvious political reasons the government is inclined to give in to wage demands. (When it fails to give in to wage demands it is denounced from all sides — big business doesn’t mind bloated civil service salaries, since they are a stick to beat the ANC with.) So unions like NEHAWU and SADTU and POPCRU can sit like worms in an apple, feeding in perfect security, freely denouncing the government which protects them and promoting the persistence of a system which ultimately undermines their interest.
Which means that someday (if the labour market consultants have their way) big business, doubtless operating through something like the DA or someone like Tokyo Sexwale, will come along and chop down that apple tree, and then it will just be too late for the worms.