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.
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.
Recently, the Creator was listening to someone being smug on the radio.