The South African Federation of Trade Unions cheered and welcomed the recall of former President Zuma. His years in office were a catastrophe for the country, especially for the working class and the poor. He presided over, and joined in, the looting of public resources and outrageous levels of corruption, fraud and money-laundering. He brought state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to the brink of insolvency, and reduced the economy to ‘junk’ status.
He should not only have been recalled but be criminally charged, not only for his role in the arms deal, but in all the other more recent corrupt activities detailed in the former Public Protector’s report on The State of Capture, Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keepers and the Gupta email disclosures.
SAFTU however, in the same statement welcoming his departure, warned that it would be a serious error to imagine that all the problems of mass unemployment poverty, inequality and corruption – all of which got worse in his terms of office – would now be solved under the new President Ramaphosa.
These problems, we argued, were not the fault of just one man and his cronies but were rooted in a corrupt capitalist system, and the neoliberal, free-market policies of successive ANC governments before Zuma’s and which are continuing under Ramaphosa.
Unfortunately however this view has been drowned out by the the view taken by virtually the whole of the media, business leaders and many South African citizens, who were so relieved to see the end of this corrupt president that they joined in what became known as ‘Ramaphoria’ – a belief that a ‘new dawn’ had broken and that life was about to return to ‘normal’.
This idea has been revived as the media mark Ramaphosa’s first 100 days. One of the most enthusiastic supporters of this view is Business Day, whose editorial on 25 May 2018 argues the “The critical matter during the first hundred days and beyond is sustaining Ramaphoria”.
Yet the day before the editorial appeared the very same newspaper published an article by Karyn Maughan, which contradicted this stance. It was a breath of fresh air after all the Ramaphoria propaganda, and echoed some SAFTU’s own concerns.
She wrote that “In the days and weeks and months that followed Zuma’s rather strange and ungracious exit, it’s become apparent that the former president — who dominated headlines with his vast array of irrational and indefensible decisions, his apparent handing over of his powers to the Gupta family and his unfortunate choice of cabinet ministers — had become central to a convenient mythology that sought to blame one man for all of this country’s problems.”
She acknowledges Zuma’s “devastating economic legacy for SA, one that will take years to undo and that has had a deeply damaging effect on the lives of the poor and vulnerable”.
But Maughan then argues that “Zuma was never the biggest threat to our democracy. SA has been described as the most unequal society in the world, and the consequences of that inequality are becoming more and more apparent, and more and more difficult to ignore”.
To back this up she quotes from the report released by the World Bank which showed that inequality has actually deepened since 1994. It revealed that :
These are all statistics which SAFTU has repeatedly used to back up its own view of a systemic economic crisis, which cannot possibly be blamed on one individual and which will not be solved by another individual, Ramaphosa, who is pursuing exactly the same economic polices.
Maughan goes on to argue that “The level of inequality… speaks of a society dangerously unbalanced in the distribution of its wealth and opportunities. This should be the number one priority of the government and the citizenry as we try to build SA up from the violence and structured racism that birthed and sustained the inequality”.
“But,” she complains, “it doesn’t seem to be the priority. And why is that? Perhaps part of the problem is that serious socioeconomic upheavals in SA – such as Fees Must Fall, land invasions and the growing number of service delivery protests we see on our screens almost every day – are viewed in isolation from one another, as if they are disparate and unconnected events. Except they are not. They are manifestations of the sometimes violent consequences of an exhausted society, increasingly angry about the unfairness that defines the lives of its people”.
That comes very close to SAFTU’s view that there is a deep structural problem of an economic system which is incapable of distributing economic wealth and opportunities in a fair way, and indeed creates greater inequalities all the time.
Maughan then bravery tackles the media, and questions how it portrays or examines poverty, and “how utterly we have failed to prioritise journalism that speaks to the lived consequences of deprivation, and examines how those in power – and those who want it – can tackle that deprivation in a sustainable and effective way”.
She then quotes a report by Municipal IQ – “that service delivery protests in SA were increasing, with a staggering 94% of them turning violent. April was a particularly protest-prone month in North West‚ Northern Cape and Free State municipalities, often affecting roads and basic services… Of great concern is that 94% of the service delivery protests we have recorded this year have been violent.”
“By giving attention to service delivery issues only when they turn violent,” she writes, “SA’s government – and, arguably, the media – have in effect engendered and sustained a culture of destructive protest that is deeply damaging to the health of our democracy. At the heart of that dysfunction is this: our society has become so numb to the lived consequences of poverty that we only see these realities when things start burning. And, even then, our focus tends to be on the destruction, not the utter desperation that drove it”.
“The truth is,” Maughan concludes, is that “ Zuma was never our biggest problem. His leadership worsened the inequality created by apartheid and sustained by self-perpetuating cycles of poverty, but it can’t be wholly blamed for that inequality. Now Zuma is gone, South Africans can either start acknowledging that we had, and have, a part to play in the renewal and rebuilding of this country – and demand leadership that palpably starts tackling our dangerous inequality – or we, like the man we like to blame for everything, will destroy ourselves with our own denial.”
This viewpoint is a very refreshing move away from the mindless Ramaphoria of most of the media. The only problem for SAFTU however is that while Maughan recognizes that poverty and inequality are structural problems rather than mistakes by individuals, she does not explain what the structural problem is, or how it can be overcome.
In SAFTU’s view all the problems which she describes so well are features of the capitalist system, particularly in today’s monopolised version in which there is no ‘free market’, no economic democracy and no inclusivity. It is an economic dictatorship, driven purely by the needs of a ruling class which prioritizes the pursuit of profits, and making them as big and as quickly as possible.
This they can only do by exploiting the workers who actually produce the country’s wealth, and in the process condemning the majority of those workers, both those employed on poverty wages and the unemployed, to poverty, a struggle to survive and exclusion from the country’s economic life.
A few leaders of this elite class will from time to time wring their hands and lament the levels of poverty and inequality, as we saw at the World Economic Forum, but they will never do anything about it, as they are locked into an economic system that is intrinsically unequal and corrupt.
If we are to put an end to all the problems that Karyn Maughan has identified, and to achieve the society envisaged by the Freedom Charter – in which “the national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil, [and] the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole” – we have to destroy this monopoly capitalist system.
Only through the nationalisation of the mines, banks, land and monopoly industries, under the democratic control of the workers and the people as a whole, can we create a society in which the economy is planned, the priority is to create jobs and raise living standards, where wealth is equally shared, and goods are made and services delivered for the benefit of all South Africans and not a small super-rich elite of exploiters.
It will be a truly democratic society in which the people have not only the right to vote every five years but in which they are equal and active participants in all branches of society and the economy.