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South Africa faces a crisis of representation and legitimacy


Zwelinzima Vavi is the general secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu)

South Africa is facing a challenge of the legitimacy of its political and socio-economic system. A growing number of our citizens are being left behind. They are angry and they feel they are not being represented by any political party, trade union or civil society formation.

Who represents us?

This is a cry of the majority of South Africans who feel disenfranchised, marginalised and neglected by all of us who claim to be the representatives of the people.

South Africa is facing a challenge of the legitimacy of its political and socio-economic system. A growing number of our citizens are being left behind. They are angry and they feel they are not being represented by any political party, trade union or civil society formation.

The situation facing the working class in our country and the world reminds me of the truck metaphor used by India’s Arundhati Roy to describe the contradictory social order of development in India. This metaphor could easily be applied to the South African conditions.

Roy points out that contemporary India is characterised by a kind of “schizophrenic” progress:

It is as though the people of India have been rounded up and loaded onto two convoys of trucks (a huge one and a tiny little one) that have set off resolutely in opposite directions. The tiny convoy is on its way to a glittering destination somewhere near the top of the world. The other convoy just melts into the darkness and disappears.” (Roy 2001, p 189)

The glittering destination of one truck and the melting into the darkness of the other truck described by Roy is similar to how Joe Slovo, the former General Secretary of the SACP, talked emotionally about the world he flew into after spending decades in exile.

On his return, as his plane was descending, he said he saw one world of double storey buildings with swimming pools that could feed the longest river in Africa, the Nile, with beautiful gardens, green golf courses and opulence. On the other side of the street, Slovo saw people filled into small pieces of land like sardines and living in squalor.

The working class is melting into darkness and disappearing in contemporary South Africa. We have the sixth-worst unemployment rate in the world. When it comes to youth unemployment we have become the worst in the whole world.

We hold the infamous title of being the country with the worst inequalities. More than 55% of our population is trapped in degrading poverty with 26-million people unable to afford and therefore missing at least one meal a day.

Jobs are not only disappearing but an increasing number of the remaining workers see their jobs being made more precarious than ever before, through outsourcing, the use of labour brokers and jobs previously performed by permanent workers now being redefined as Expanded Public Works Programmes and paid peanuts with no benefits.

It is not my intention to talk of the gains of the past 25 years or the glittering destination and the other truck disappearing into darkness in any further detail.

What is however clear, notwithstanding the strides made, poverty is increasing not decreasing, unemployment is increasing and not decreasing and inequalities are increasing not decreasing.

Steadily but surely, more and more people are losing hope. More people are disengaging with the political systems of our country. More and more workers do not look to unions for protection and more communities do not belong to civic associations or other forms of organisations to speak for them.

People who follow statistics will attest to the following worrying trends in our country. The initial excitement, driven by a massive wave of hope following the unbanning of political formations, the release of Nelson Mandela, the return of the exiled leaders and the 1994 democratic elections, has died down.

The levels of participation in the elections following that euphoria of 1994 have been on a steady decline since 1999, which was the end of the first term of the Nelson Mandela government. We have now reached crisis levels when it comes to apathy, in particular among the youth.

In the last election, the majority of the 36-million South Africans who are of voting age did not exercise their hard-won right to vote.

After hard work on voter education led by the Independent Electoral Commission and with an enthusiastic support of the ever-growing number of political parties, only about 26-million people registered. On voting day, only 16-million people saw a reason to vote.

This means some 20-million simply did not find a good reason to leave their homes and make a small sacrifice of standing in a queue to go to vote.

Effectively a minority now rules South African citizens. The majority finds other creative ways to spend their time on elections day; some even opt to organise community level soccer tournaments.

What drives this apathy are disappointed expectations and the worsening of the material conditions of the black working class. In their mind is a saying they repeat everywhere in gatherings: If Mandela our foremost hero could not address our unemployment, poverty, inequalities, education, healthcare and if he could not return our land and redistribute wealth from the former oppressors, who else can do that? If Oliver Tambo’s organisation cannot solve these problems and has become what it is today, who else is immune to the corroding power of the office?

As we approach the 2019 general elections, we are told a record-breaking 285 political parties are registered and will contest the elections. The ruling class should be smiling; fragmentation, just like voter apathy, works perfectly well for them. The ANC a once celebrated liberation movement, one of the few African liberation movements to see society through the prism of class divisions and class struggle, is now a rural party.

It has lost the urban working class vote, signified by the loss of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town to the opposition parties. Two-thirds of the ANC support is now the one-third of the citizens residing in the former apartheid Bantustans. The ANC is following in the footsteps of Zanu-PF which has long become a rural party and which won the last elections by a mere 30,000 votes.

This multitude of political parties is no different from the number of registered unions. In 2017 there were 182 registered trade unions but all of them represented only 24% of all workers in the economy. The trade union is at its weakest point and is fragmented and offering no shield to the marginalised workers crying out for help.

This means a staggering 76% of workers are not in the trade unions. More importantly, the trade union movement is absent where it is needed the most. As an example, only around 5% of workers in the farms are organised, and a lesser number of domestic workers.

The most vulnerable workers who need the unions the most are not organised. Unions have a far better level of penetration in the public service, mining and clothing and textiles sectors.

These 76% of the workers are also asking a question, “who represents us?” SAFTU was formed to try and respond to this question. SAFTU should ask itself a question – are we on course?

The South African National Civics Organisation – SANCO – has become a national association of its leaders and hardly exists anywhere on the ground. A proliferation of new residents and the civic association has occupied the vacuum. There are, on average, 30 service delivery protests every day.

According to police reports, there were 14,740 protests in 2014/15. We are the headquarters of protest action but with no organisation on the ground to coordinate and lead these protests actions. Our people are leading themselves!

This crisis of representation extends to the student movement. Wits University is regarded as one of the most radical in student politics. Yet it had not even a quarter of its student population participating in the SRC elections – only 19% in 2017. The 25% participation rate in the recent Wits SRC election won by SASCO is hailed as the best level in decades!

The death of the ANC Youth League – which previously was SAYCO, enjoyed an uncontested hegemony – has meant that there is no real co-ordinated national youth voice. Yet it is the youth who face the brunt of the failing of the capitalist system, neoliberalism and austerity measures.

It appears that students prefer something ad hoc and sporadic, such as the fees must fall movement, to represent them and not the formalised bodies such as SRCs and traditional formations. This broadly mirrors all the other universities in South Africa.

New grassroots formations have occupied the space – Abahlali Basemjondolo, Bishop Lavis Action (BLAC), Water Crisis Coalition, Housing Assembly, and the Amadiba Crisis Committee which is providing strong resistance against the Minister of Minerals who is hell-bent on issuing a license to the Transworld Energy and Minerals, a subsidy of the Australian mining company that wants to mine in Xolobeni.

There are many examples of issue-based but grassroots formations spreading across the breadth and length of the country. The rise of these movements requires a more detailed analysis and is, therefore, a topic on its own.

All of these form part of the 147 working class formations that convened themselves in July 2018. This could be an interesting restart of grass-roots formations uniting with workers in the factories, mines and farms.

The service culture in our body politic has weakened considerably. The culture of solidarity and putting our people first is fast being replaced by “me and my family first; to hell with everyone else”.

Accountability is weak, and the right to recall faltering representatives is simply non-existent. Our electoral system is based on proportional representation and we do not elect our representatives and our President directly. The bar to measure public representatives against certain moral and ethical standards is very low. In fact, some argue that there is no longer any bar to talk about.

The new generation has lost the trust of its leaders. “You are all the same” is what is repeated in the social media. Even the best selected is more of a selection of the less compromised. Society has become numb to countless corruption scandals. Most simply shrug their shoulders and move on, even as we are being fed a daily dose of scandals that would lead to the immediate resignation of the government in most of the democratic world.

The vast majority of the people cannot even afford airtime, have no knowledge of Twitter, are not on Facebook, cannot afford to hold for 30 minutes on a line to air their voice on a radio talk show, and facing untold catastrophic hardships in the ever-growing concentration camps of poverty which Slovo saw upon his return from exile.

We have spoken about the ticking bomb in reference to the extraordinarily high levels of unemployment and poverty. The cousin and brother to that ticking bomb is apathy and utter hopelessness.

No one can predict what will spark South Africa’s own Tahrir Square.

It may take a small girl child knocked down by a blue light brigade or a child drowning in a pit toilet, but something far smaller in scale than the Marikana massacre, Life Esidimeni, Steinhoff, Bosasa, etc could be a spark.

The leadership of the working class must rise beyond the confines of their existing formations, unite the progressive forces and take South Africa on an upward path. Sectarianism and unilateralism do not represent a new break with this crisis. DM

Zwelinzima Vavi is SAFTU General Secretary


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