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Class apartheid in South African society, at our university and in climate politics


Before we get to some hot South African political economy and political ecology, first consider the psycho-socio-sexual-sporting context.

For cultural reasons, President Jacob Zuma is today at his weakest since taking office last May. He is suffering severe delegitimation amongst progressives and traditionalists alike, even within his majority-faction in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), thanks to a child secretly born four months ago.

The revelation last week suddenly recalled his 2006 rape trial – and acquittal – immediately after which Zuma publicly apologized for his ‘mistake’ in having unprotected sex (she said rape) with an HIV-positive daughter of a friend. The misogyny on display at Zuma’s trial followed his firing as deputy president for corruption (via a sprawling arms deal) by his then boss, Thabo Mbeki. Zuma was then charged with scores of bribery counts, which were conveniently wiped off the books a few weeks before the 2009 election by an accommodating state prosecutor (since duly rewarded).

Of apparent dismay to even his strongest supporters, the new child’s mother is the daughter of Zuma’s old friend Irvin Khoza, a very very rough and tough Soweto tycoon who happens to be the 2010 soccer World Cup organizing chairperson. In Zulu tradition, Zuma’s obligation is to pay for damages done to the Khoza daughter’s reputation, a task apparently carried out discretely by underlings last December.

At the point of conception in early 2009, Zuma had recently married for the fifth time (three wives are current, while one – the current Home Affairs minister – divorced him and one committed suicide), while also becoming engaged to a (different) woman. Thus many citizens believe the president now must confront his sex-addiction as a medical condition.

Twenty Zuma children are known. Like Bill Clinton’s famous fears during the 1992 presidential election, the disclosure-explosion of sexual predation may not yet be over, and at this stage, even his most pro-polygamous nationalist base is expressing disgust. In short, South Africa’s leader is a laughing-stock, just four months before he hosts the world’s most visible sporting event.

Weak presidents are generally welcomed by African progressives, given the need to open space for counterhegemonic practices and ideology. But recall that Zuma came to power last year as a result, mainly, of labour and SA Communist Party mobilizations in 2006-08, culminating in the rude but welcome dismissal of Mbeki.

And now, because he is unable to galvanize momentum for any sort of political project aside from survival, Zuma appears to be drifting rightwards, to the ANC’s solid financial-support base of white capital and aspiring black entrepreneurs.

Last Thursday, the twentieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, was the day that Zuma was meant to fight back, by delivering a stunning State of the Nation speech in front of Mandela and the nation. Instead, he and his speechwriters pleased no one. Zuma displayed "no appreciation of the full extent of the massive crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality," as the leaders of his main ANC-Alliance partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), bitterly complained.

Statistics justifying this charge were revealed three weeks ago by middle-of-the-road economists at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
"Income inequality increased between 1993 and 2008," reported Murray Leibbrandt, Ingrid Woolard, Arden Finn and Jonathan Argent. "Poverty in urban areas has increased."

SA’s Gini coefficient inequality measure raced ahead of Brazil’s to become the world’s leader among major countries: from 0.66 in 1993 to 0.70 in 2008. The income of the average black (African) person actually fell as a percentage of the average white’s from 1995 (13.5%) to 2008 (13.0%).

How could a democratic government adopt socio-economic policies that amplified apartheid race-class inequality?

Mandela, Mbeki, long-serving finance minister (now planning minister) Trevor Manuel, former trade minister Alec Erwin, and former central bank governor Tito Mboweni – and Zuma too – all deserve credit for a feat not even the most extreme pessimist could have predicted when the ANC was unbanned exactly two decades ago.

According to the UCT researchers, the inequality problem is "due both to rising unemployment and rising earnings inequality" – in turn partly due to labour broking, i.e., the outsourcing of formerly secure employment at much lower wages with no benefits.

There are 500,000 outsourced workers in South Africa, according to industry sources, though the finance ministry confessed during parliamentary questions last October that its economists don’t really have a clue: "To conduct such a study would require detailed data on the number of workers involved with temporary employment services or labour broking, the wages of these workers and some estimate for the number of workers who would lose their jobs if labour broking were to be banned."

Leaders of a decent society would immediately find out the answers, then ban labour brokers, and at the same time increase state-subsidised employment creation, especially for badly-needed green jobs such as construction of solar hot-water heaters and community facilities, and environmental maintenance.

But as the inequality data show, South Africa is just not that kind of place; it’s a society in which the ruling party’s crony capitalists ally with those who grew wealthy during racial apartheid, and then together promote class-apartheid policies and practices to accumulate yet more wealth.

In our own microcosm at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) here in Durban, the implications of this system are evident thanks to vivid lessons our administrators learned when the great teacher of poverty, Mamphela Ramphele, experimented on UCT’s workforce a decade ago.

Ramphele was Steve Biko’s partner, a revolutionary and community health worker during the 1970s, and a researcher of Western Cape social degradation in her 1980s anthropology doctoral thesis, and cochair of the Carnegie Inquiry into poverty.

A committed scholar-activist, she had to retool for a new, rather more lucrative stage of her career a decade ago: World Bank managing director. To create poverty on the prolific scale required at the Bank, Ramphele got good training as UCT’s president (vice chancellor), from 1996-2000.

According to her deputy, Wieland Gevers, Ramphele’s arrival marked "a turning point in UCT’s history," as the university’s "focus underwent a fundamental shift." Ramphele "served on the boards of several premier corporations. She came to UCT strongly convinced that its administration was archaic and not sufficiently informed by modern corporate practice. A whirlwind hit UCT."

The ill wind blew away the rights of already low-paid workers. Explained an approving Gevers, "In corporate fashion, and with support of UCT’s Council, Mamphela outsourced many functions that were not core business." By March 2000, the Labour Court ruled that UCT could retrench hundreds of non-academic staff, "a process which has already left many families homeless and fighting for survival," according to journalist Beauregard Tromp.

As at UKZN, labour broking wrecked the lives of UCT workers doing cleaning, gardening, maintenance and messenger services. Ramphele called this "pruning the tree of dead wood and inappropriately placed branches to make way for new shoots."

Dead wood? Leonard Malukazi of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union observed that Ramphele fired low-income workers who served for more than 30 years: "There were people who were about to retire in a year’s time. Even then they didn’t give a second thought to who they retrenched."

It was a brutal shock, says Malukazi. "The majority of university workers have been working to pay a housing bond and with these retrenchments it basically means that you have entire families out on the streets without the benefits of health care or housing allowances."

As Ramphele’s salary soared at the Bank, UCT workers suffered dramatic income cuts (to an average of $160 per month) and lost their annual bonus, free medical insurance, housing subsidy and all other benefits.

UCT sociologists Jonathan Grossman and Vicki Scholtz noted how "Ramphele spoke of the ‘painful decision’ and assured the UCT community that the workers would be employed, retrained, and/or able to start their own businesses. As with so many painful decisions, the pain was all imposed on the victims of the decision by those taking it."

But the UCT workers resisted and after continuing their court battles, the university – under new management – was soon compelled to pay out nearly a million dollars worth of damages. Then workers brought their pay up to $400/month through organising and strikes.

The same process has begun at UKZN because of extremely low wages – cleaners take home just $120/month, security guards $240 – and exploitative working conditions, including the mass firing of 80 vulnerable cleaning workers last month. Trevor Ngwane of the Centre for Civil Society works closely with worker-leader Zama Hlatshwayo; even these very talented radicals persistently reach deadlock with university human-resources bureaucrats.

It’s a dangerous game, for anger at labour brokers ramped up tragic violence during the 2006 national security guards’ strike, in which 70 scab workers were killed. "The security industry paid pitiful wages and must take responsibility for what happened," conceded Ramphele, in her 2009 book Laying Ghosts to Rest. "The right to work for a decent reward was violated by its exploitative practices."

She uses a chapter of that book to justify her UCT management practices, but somehow forgets to mention the outsourcing of low-paid workers. The talk-left walk-right legacy, so typical of nationalist, post-apartheid managerialism, continues to bedevil our universities; UKZN’s mission statement also sounds progressive.

What can change the power balance?

Zuma is apparently not to be trusted, for as Cosatu observed on Friday, his speech contained "nothing on the creation of decent work, the spread of casualisation of labour and the scourge of labour broking, and nothing to explain how he intends to implement the 2009 manifesto commitment to ‘avoid exploitation of workers and ensure decent work.’"

What Zuma did do, however, was threaten more police brutality against the victims of his macroeconomic policies, such as was witnessed in the most militant peripheral town (Balfour) last week when police hunted down and tortured community activists. South Africa’s per capita social protest rate continues to lead the world, and scenes of road blockades, burning tires and repression reminiscent of the film District 9, may prove yet more embarrassing to the SA ruling class when three billion viewers tune in to the World Cup starting on June 11.

Zuma also promised Eskom’s partial privatization, notwithstanding SA’s universally miserable experience with the likes of Telkom’s Texan-Malaysian rip-off landline phone partners, the disastrous Suez municipal water takeover in Johannesburg, the crash of a SAAirlines-Swiss Air deal, machinations by the US energy firm AES, toll roads and many others.

Privatisation will, Cosatu replied, "ultimately wreck a crucial public national service and we shall continue to campaign vigorously to prevent the sell-off of a vital public asset."

Many others agree. This Tuesday morning, South Durban community organisers and Climate Justice Now!-KZN activists will protest massive electricity price increases (likely to be approved by the National Energy Regulator of SA on Wednesday), vast greenhouse gas emissions from proposed coal-fired power plants, and the threatened $3.75 billion World Bank loan at Eskom’s Durban headquarters.

The unity of consumers, communities, environmentalists and workers both formally employed and outsourced might prevail. An international coalition is forming to deny Eskom access to the World Bank, and if that fails, to deny the World Bank access to the $250 billion in capital it will be asking for at its Spring 2010 meetings in Washington just ten weeks from now.

A decade ago, Ngwane and the late Dennis Brutus were instrumental in launching the World Bank Bonds Boycott, which followed the South African divestment movement of the 1970s-80s by lobbying institutional investors to avoid profits and interest from apartheid – or in this case, global apartheid.

In this and similar struggles now intensifying here, we riff-raff are up against formidable opponents from Pretoria to Washington, including world-class experts well practiced in the art of generating poverty and inequality. Calls for solidarity against all these class-apartheid manifestations will soon ring out.

(Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society – http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs )

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