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Private sector worker and consumer issues aggravate discontent against the state

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Dr Seelan Naidoo is principal associate at Public Ethos Consulting. He holds a master's in Decision-making, Knowledge and Values from Stellenbosch University, and a PhD in Organisation Studies and Cultural Theory from the University of St Gallen. He is an associated researcher of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.

It’s important to go beyond the symptoms to try to uncover the causal dynamics of public discontent in South Africa. At the threshold of the 2024 elections, thinking more clearly about this debilitating problem is a civic duty for all of us.

Not long ago I had a conversation with a supermarket cashier who told me about her long working hours with a sigh. Bongiwe (not her real name) had to work until 9pm that night. I suggested that although being a cashier is hard work, it was good that she had a steady job when so many were unemployed. She told me that her pay and conditions of work were not good at all, adding “I wish the government would give me a job so that I don’t have to do this anymore”.

As I tapped my card to pay, I realised how naïve my suggestion was. This exchange stayed with me because it told of how a worker’s lived experience of a job can turn — and be turned — into discontent against the state and government.

Bongiwe’s case illustrates that people know the symptoms of their own challenging lived conditions with certainty. However, they may misinterpret the causes of those symptoms. People who have the most reason to be discontented may — and often do — vent their frustrations in the wrong direction.

That is why it is so important to go beyond the symptoms to try to uncover the causal dynamics of public discontent in South Africa. At the threshold of the 2024 elections, thinking more clearly about this debilitating problem is a civic duty for all of us.

There is no straightforward empirical analysis that will reveal the causes of worsening public discontent. However, there are humanities and social scientific methods that make the problem more tractable by helping us to grasp this complex phenomenon which cuts across the disciplines of politics, economics, sociology, psychology and others.

Rather than being a monolithic phenomenon, public discontent occurs in more specific modes of life. As Citizen, as Worker, as Consumer. These modes of life are axial to qualitatively different kinds of collective experience and sentiment. They are the shared identities around which different kinds of both legitimate and misdirected sentiments coalesce.

As widely shared modes of life, they give us a way to understand the relationships between the lived conditions of South Africans and who they hold responsible for those conditions. The kind of understanding that is crucial to more informed public participation in the major spheres of life in South Africa.

There are other collective identities that one might consider besides the Worker, Consumer, and the Citizen. It was tempting, for example, to discuss the subject of ossified unemployment — the non-Worker — since it is a mode of life that is so painfully prevalent in South Africa. One might also consider the Woman, the Child, the Elderly, the Disabled and the Immigrant as modes of life that deserve special attention because they are all characterised by vulnerability.

In this article, for the sake of clarity and brevity, I focus on the Citizen, the Worker, and the Consumer as primary collective modes of life. These interrelated modes tell us a lot about public sentiment in South Africa because they allow us to zoom out to consider them as broad social identities that cover large sections of the public, and to also zoom in to the lived conditions of specific human beings, like Bongiwe, that constitute those identities.

Thus, the Worker, Consumer, and Citizen are useful social categories that are also descriptive of personal experience.

  • As a Worker, my contentment occurs properly in relation to my conditions of employment and to my employer.
  • As a Consumer, it occurs properly in relation to producers and suppliers of goods and services, and my consumption possibilities.
  • My contentment, as a Citizen, occurs properly in relation to the state, government, and the provision of public services.

All of these identities arguably straddle the public-private divide. For example, the state is also an employer of Workers, and Consumers may also be said to consume public services. However, the extent to which they are related more to the public or the private sphere differs substantively.

As becomes more evident below, the experiences of the Worker and the Consumer are closely tied to what happens in the private sector, whereas the Citizen’s experiences are tied to the public sector.

The dis/contentment of the Consumer 

What might peeve the South African Consumer into a state of discontentment?

Let me count the ways…

The Consumer has come under increasing pressure over the past three years in the context of the debilitating Covid pandemic, disruptive wars abroad, low economic growth, extreme weather events, and disasters both natural and man-made. That is the backdrop for the downcast South African Consumer.

The contentment of the Consumer is influenced more directly by the experience of the prices, the spectrum of valued goods, their quality, and the reliability of their supply. Increasing pressure on any of these aspects of consumption translates directly into Consumer discontent.

A major driver of Consumer discontent has been the higher cost of living that most South Africans are experiencing. For the poorer half of the population, this is felt more acutely because basic food prices have increased dramatically and have remained extremely high in relative terms.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Inflation cooling, but basic food basket remains unaffordable for SRD grant recipients

Prices and their effects on costs of living are largely determined in and by the private sector. Yet, Consumers, and many organisations that represent consumer interests, do not seem to be asking why food prices are what they are. In our public discourse, very few commentators have asked about the concentrated market power, unusually high margins, increasing profits, greedflation, and concentrated supply chains which are certainly among the leading causes of galloping prices.

These decisive aspects are invisible, ignored, or are simply taken for granted by the Consumer, as if they are naturally occurring features of life that are beyond anyone’s control.

That is why the private sector escapes the public scrutiny that it deserves, especially on food production and prices. And that is how poorer South African Consumers are misled in blaming “the government” for a cost-of-living crisis that actually emanates in a private sector dominated by Big Business — from the farm to the supermarket shelf.

The dis/contentment of the Worker

The Worker is employed and thus better off economically than the other 50% of the population that relies on an extensive but thinly spread social welfare net provided by the state.

However, the South African Worker is not happy. How could they be? The scarcity of jobs which reduces their bargaining power, the threat of reductions on all fronts, actual retrenchments, longer hours spent on work, reduced benefits, low wages, and low real increases in pay all detract from the contentment of the Worker.

The Worker’s discontentment, in Bongiwe’s case about poor conditions of employment, should occur properly in the context of her employment and in relation to her employer. By far, most Workers are employed in the private sector in businesses and homes, in factories, supermarkets, farms, and mines. This reflects the structure of the South African economy which has over 90% of its formal jobs and GDP (per 2021 statistics) in the private sector.

In the private sector, millions of mostly black Workers are locked into untenably low wages. And millions more are shut out of employment and business opportunities altogether. Both of these factors are largely due to extreme economic concentration in the South African private sector.

Workers employed by the state have much better conditions than those employed in the private sector, especially at the lower wage rungs.

It is clear then that the major Worker issues ought to be understood foremost as being about conditions of employment in the private sector. It is also clear that the question of high and persistent unemployment ought to be directed first to the private sector since that is where it is expected that jobs would be created.

Yet, this is not the case for either of these pressing South African problems. Rather, Workers come to blame the government for their workplace woes. And the unemployed blame the government for a lack of job creation. A trenchant example of what Marx and Engels called false consciousness.

False consciousness is the product of mistranslation and misdiagnosis that lead the Worker astray, and away from considering the causal role of the private sector for maintaining low-wage labour and for not creating jobs. It is one of the effects of neoliberalism which blurs the distinction between the political and the economic and so makes it possible for responsibility to be transferred from the Worker to the Citizen.

The dis/contentment of the Citizen

Citizenship is constituted in the relation between the natural person and the state. The Citizen is the main occupant of the public sphere, the collective subject of the public interest that is envisaged in our Constitution. It is the Citizen who both chooses a government and lives under it.

Citizen sentiment is indicated by the levels of dis/satisfaction with public services and by the levels of trust and confidence — or a lack thereof — in government. Citizen discontentment in South Africa is a direct result of the collective experience of unsatisfactory and even deteriorating public service provision.

For this, the government must take its fair share of the responsibility for making the People unhappy with it. This requires a clear understanding of the role of government in society and the humility to acknowledge where these responsibilities have been and are being reneged upon.

Conclusion

On the threshold of the 2024 election, false consciousness is at sway in swathes among the Citizenry. Many blame the state for poor working conditions and high unemployment without asking about the social role and structure of the private sector in bringing about those conditions.

Many blame the state for high food prices and growing food insecurity without considering the leading role of businesses in the production, pricing, and distribution of food.

This is due to the misplacement of responsibility and blame, where the discontentment of the Citizen in relation to the state and government is greatly exaggerated by the mistranslation of serious Worker and Consumer issues which actually emanate in the private sector. The flow of misplaced blame runs towards the government and into a seething sea of Citizen discontent.

It explains why Bongiwe, the supermarket cashier, blames the government for the poor working conditions offered by her private sector employer. It explains how Consumer discontent about high food prices — which are largely determined from the farm to the shelf — is being misdirected in our public discourse into diatribes about the levels of grants and the temporary forms of social employment offered by the government.

South Africa has an unacceptable socioeconomic arrangement of lived conditions and life chances that is reflective of a chasm of racial inequality. In addition to those who bear the brunt of this arrangement, this is also everyone’s problem because it is an unsustainable arrangement. Unequal societies are divided, unstable, and more prone to crime and violence — consequences which affect all of us.

This is not to say that the state and the government have no responsibilities towards Consumers and Workers. Indeed, a heightened sense of co-responsibility is the major implication of this article. The South African government should pay more attention to the structural conditions of Consumers and Workers in the private sector. Labour and consumer legislation are not sufficient to address economic concentration and its many pernicious effects.

Indeed, a social democratic state is required in South Africa if we are to bring about a more just and equitable social balance. That is the precondition for increasing public well-being and contentment.

An effective social democratic state prioritises the public interest as the highest principle of our Constitution and enables the pursuit of this overarching responsibility by the government of the day. An effective social democratic government devises and implements policies to bring about a more equitable balance between the various collective interests that comprise the broader public interest.

A social democratic state envisages a large role for the government. This is entirely appropriate to our national situation. Such a government must recognise the other aspects of society and fulfil its responsibilities towards them. Thus, the government is co-responsible for the private sector, just as it is co-responsible for the non-governmental sector.

Crucially, however, in the context of this article, a social democratic government must also hold the private sector to account for its co-responsibilities to the public interest. The private sector must recognise and fulfil its prominent role in bringing about a more just and equal society. This is the biggest gap between the status quo and the effective social democracy that is so necessary in South Africa.

The co-responsibilities to charge fair prices, earn fair profits, participate in competitive markets, inform Consumers, uphold Worker rights, grow the economy, and create jobs belong first and foremost to the private sector. They are all responsibilities that require the sharing of economic rewards that would increase equality, unleash economic activity, and spur shared growth.

We can aspire to a higher ideal in South Africa by recognising and re-balancing the interests of the Corporation, the Businessperson, the Worker, the Non-Worker, the Consumer, the Immigrant, the Citizen, the Woman, and the Child.

These are the interests that constitute the broader public interest. However, these interests are terribly skewed in an unjust social arrangement because of extreme levels of economic concentration and disparity in South Africa. As Rousseau pointed out 300 years ago, an unjust social contract can only be sustained by duping the Worker, the Consumer, and the Citizen into blaming the state for all their woes.

A mutually beneficial re-balancing of values towards a social democratic contract based on public truthfulness, an informed and involved citizenry, and greater justice and equality is not only possible in South Africa, it is essential to our collective well-being and contentment in the long term. DM

I am indebted to Kiasha Naidoo and Lydia Plaatjies for their insightful suggestions.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    In my opinion, the greatest inequality is not between white and black, it is between employed and unemployed. And the greatest cause of unemployment is probably the toxic mix of poor education and unreasonably high minimum wages (high not in absolute terms, but relative to education levels) which effectively render the tragically uneducated, unemployable, by law. That seems more in the government’s remit than private enterprise.

  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    A very useful and slightly different analysis of the situation. Yes, it is really important to highlight the roles and responsibilities of the private sector in relation to prices (especially food), job creation, and the conditions under which many workers suffer. And all of these need very serous attention. But you (and government) can’t completely ignore the government’s own roles and responsibilities in these areas, in particular the pricing of goods and job creation. It is very telling that almost everyone I have worked with in the private and NGO sectors hankers after a government job (like Bongiwe). These pay better, including lots of lovely perks such as medical aid, airtime and data with many jobs, housing and travel allowances with some; there is clearly less pressure to actually do much (or anything, in some cases); and it is almost impossible to lose such a job, once you have your foot in the door. There are lots of dynamics at play in the contentment space. So everyone needs to come to the party with just one focus; on improving the lives of the majority population, even if means the privileged minority, in which I include middle to senior level government officials and private sector managers (and others including senior academics), have to make some quite serious sacrifices. Ok, just a pipe dream!

  • Jack Russell says:

    Discontent?
    The insecurity of living in a dangerous society that has massively disappointed? The harsh realities of maybe no job? Unrealised entitlement, instilled by the woke Left, who proclaim as holy writ an impossibility, that everyone, including 12 million or so immigrants from Africa, has rights that have never materialised, “a decent job”, free housing, schools, healthcare and the like? Failed services?
    This demand against emigration resulting from the prejudice against those with job creating skills? Job character measured against government jobs for life where there’s lots more money and lots less work?
    Finally even a blind camel could look around and see that government has let it’s people down, that civil society is a mess? All know SA could have been so much better.

  • Philip Conradie says:

    Clearly, the answer is to do away with all private enterprise, thus eliminating the pesky profit motive. All Workers, Consumers and Citizens will have their needs catered for by a benificent and all-knowing State. The Workers will be employed by the State, providing the goods and services required by the Consumers and Citizens. Of course the more-equal-than-others Workers would need a higher quality of goods and services to ensure they can continue their vital work in ensuring the Workers, Consumers and Citizens remain contented/satisfied.
    Everyone remains employed, fed and no need for disruptive and unsatisfying elections.
    Utopia.

  • Paul Hatty says:

    I am a little concerned that a thesis is constructed by someone with a PhD in Organisational Studies using a sample of 1. Despite this, the article gives me little hope for the future of South Africa if this is the thinking of a majority of South Africans. A country where no work is better than half a job, where all will be employed by government on cushy salaries, not having to do much work, but it will mean the NHI will be unnecessary.

  • Whataboutboxer Animalfarm says:

    A larger role for the government in the economy has been tried all over the world. It has a poor track record.
    Centralised power fails because it concentrates power, while liberal democracies are successful because it dilutes power.
    This country has a history of state supplied electricity, medical care, transport, education, telecommunications, steel and others.
    It might not be too wide of the mark to claim that the failure of the state in managing the above industries have contributed to the challenging economic environment we all find ourselves in.
    Including those in low reward jobs like cashiers.

  • Confused Citizen says:

    The are many reasons for Bongiwe’s plight that have nothing to do with the private sector.
    It is a personal choice to engage in unprotected sex/using no contraceptives. We have an unsustainable population growth.
    The government schools don’t provide decent education, relegating Bongiwe to an unskilled cashier job where she can be replaced by millions unemployed unskilled workers.
    Food inflation is high because stores have to spend money on diesel, generators, inverters and solar installations because government has stuffed up electricity supply for the next 10 years.
    Food inflation is high because the government’s pal, Russia, has invaded Ukraine leeding to food, fertiliser and fuel shortages worldwide.
    We are part of the global economy. Investors require a reasonable return taking into consideration the risks to their capital that they/business put at risk (not the government’s capital).
    So, NO, none of the current discontent is caused by the private sector. Underlying it is government’s failed policies and individual choices.

  • Charles Butcher says:

    The private sector sees the state as TOO INTERFERING hence the state is blamed. Government must do government things not PRIVATE ENTERPRISE and MONEY MAKING

  • Deon de Wet-Roos says:

    “A mutually beneficial re-balancing of values towards a social democratic contract based on public truthfulness, an informed and involved citizenry, and greater justice and equality is not only possible in South Africa…..” How on earth do you arrive at this conclusion? How is it possible to arrive at a mutually beneficial social contract in South Africa? Can you stop dreaming and actually give some practical examples of how this might be achieved. Unfortunately my PhD deals in the physical and the economical. It irks me tremendously to have to share the title of Dr. with people who decorate their flowery ideas on paper and obtains a degree for doing that without strenuous numerical rigour to support their views.

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