Opinionista Castro Ngobese 26 January 2015

Minimum wage and the Freedom Charter: No room for debate, no room for delay

South Africa’s billionaire deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, when addressing the National Economic Development and Labour Council’s (NEDLAC) Summit in November 2014, said that in post-Apartheid South Africa, “millions still live in poverty…we are [one of] the most unequal societies in the world”. Given his stature as South Africa’s second-most senior government leader, Ramaphosa’s openness and honesty buried once and for all the ideological fog of a ‘good story to tell’ punted by the ANC since the 2014 general elections.

This uncomfortable reality, as stated by Ramaphosa, is the outcome of South Africa’s failed and disastrous economic policy choices prescribed by National Treasury, rating agencies, and the international financial institutions – namely the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Post 1994, the democratic state has pursued market-led economic policies with religious zeal.

It was during the abovementioned Summit that Ramaphosa let the cat out of the bag, revealing government’s intention to introduce a national minimum wage. He ardently stated that at the Labour Relations Indaba, to be held in the month of November 2014, “… all social partners are expected to present their proposals so that we can thoroughly and thoughtfully engage on this national minimum wage issue. This will help us identify areas of commonality and measure how far social partners are from each other, thus shaping further engagement as we move towards preparing a framework document outlining possible modalities and parameters for the introduction of the national minimum wage”.

But what does the Freedom Charter say? The Freedom Charter does not speak about convening a “Labour Indaba” to discuss the “framework and modalities” for the introduction of a national minimum wage. The Freedom Charter says, “There shall be a forty-hour working week, a national minimum wage, paid annual leave, and sick leave for all workers, and maternity leave on full pay for all working mothers”. It is an indictment not on the Freedom Charter, but on the ruling ANC, that after more than two decades in power, that it has spectacularly failed to implement such a basic thing as a national minimum wage in the country. Interestingly, the ANC as liberator has dismally failed to accelerate and fully implement the key demands of the Charter, including the demand that “the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole”. Rather than deliver on the popular mandate given to it by the workers, the unemployed and the poor, the ANC has instead become a security guard of white monopoly capital, the guardian angel of big business and its fellow travellers.

As Numsa, we fully support the introduction of a legislated national minimum wage in South Africa as demanded by the Freedom Charter. Obviously, some of our class opponents will be opposed to such a minimum wage since they have been dependent on cheap, black labour for many years, dating back to the colonial and Apartheid eras. For us, we see the introduction of a minimum wage as a tool to start undoing the colonial and Apartheid wage structure inherited from the past; and which continues to be reproduced given our failure to radically transform the old Apartheid economic order.

In the recent past, we have seen farmworkers in De Doorns and mineworkers in the platinum belt, organised outside Cosatu’s traditional unions, leading struggles of workers for decent pay and decent conditions. The platinum belt strike was unprecedented post-1994 because it was the longest-ever strike of workers in South Africa’s history. These and many other collective forms of action demonstrate a heightened level of class consciousness amongst workers, and also helped to further sharpen the contradictions between labour and capital in the new South Africa.

The minimum wage will help cushion workers from the severity of our hugely exploitative labour market. Furthermore, it will ease the socio-economic burden imposed on workers, given our notoriously high rate of unemployment, which has constrained the poor and unemployed to rely on those earning an income for survival. Amidst the triple crisis of poverty, unemployment and inequality, we have seen a rise in mass anger as evidenced by violent service delivery protests across many of South Africa’s Apartheid-designed townships. 

Bosses have enjoyed a glorious run during our two decades of democracy, raking in excessive salary packages, benefits and share options. At the same time, workers, who are the backbone of our economy, and who have kept the wheels of our economy turning, have been continuously subjected to low, starvation wages. These inferior wages can only deliver squalid shacks, inferior food, ailing public health-care, and a collapsing education system. On the other side of the divide, the rich and the middle-class have created for themselves an oasis of opulence. They have access to a luxurious, first-world private healthcare system, well-resourced private schooling, quality and accessible public transport; food security. Their economic status enables them to live in segregated, high-walled houses in boomed-off suburbs, where effective and visible policing insulates them from the wrath of the poor.

The demand for a national minimum wage is necessitated by the scandalous conditions the black African working class still finds itself suffering, 21 years after our negotiated settlement.

Under President Lula, Brazil introduced a national minimum wage to alleviate poverty amongst workers. This saw the number of workers described as ‘poor’ fall sharply from 61,4 million to 41,5 million, a change of some 20 million individuals. It is in this context that we are calling for a wage policy, combined with appropriate macro-economic and industrial policies as opposed to the neoliberal National Development Plan, whose policy proposals will entrench deregulation of the labour market, repress wages and foster the de-industrialisation of our ailing economy.

If the working class is to realise a national minimum wage, it will have to abandon its reliance on politicians and the elites for the articulation of its demands. It is important for the working class, as class for itself, to take control and ownership of its destiny by swamping the streets of our country to demand a minimum wage. It is through workers’ unity and solidarity with the unemployed, mainly the unemployed youth, that we can achieve the minimum wage.

Victory is certain! Aluta continua! DM

Castro Ngobese is the National Spokesperson of Numsa


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