The Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, published on 15 July, exposes an appalling and unprecedented economic and human catastrophe. It exposes the cruelty of a government and a ruling class which puts profits before lives – and wealth before the human needs of the majority of the people.
It reveals a net loss of three million jobs between February and April. “The impact is colossal and it shocked us,” said Dr Nic Spaull, principal investigator for this survey.
“One in three income earners in February did not earn an income in April, which translated into an almost immediate job loss when lockdown was declared. 47% of respondents reported that their household ran out of money to buy food in April 2020… All of us were numbed. It is devastating and upsetting.”
The South African Federation of Trade Unions is appalled at these statistics, but not at all surprised that the government and ruling class have left our people and economy in such a vulnerable situation.
The job losses are the result not just of the Covid-19 pandemic, but of years of government’s neoliberal economic strategy, dictated by a ruling class of billionaire capitalists and the international financial system, which had already left a country on the verge of bankruptcy.
The pressures that the Treasury has been responding to are today reflected in a Business Day report on the new $4.2 billion IMF loan, with extreme austerity as the agreed condition for a $4.2 billion loan: “expenditure cuts of R230 billion over the next two years; a commitment to freeze public-sector wages for 2020-21; and a plan to arrest the rapidly rising debt-to-GDP ratio by holding it to 87% over the next three years. It would be difficult to deviate from the supplementary budget, which forms the basis of the letter.” Even before the first Coronavirus infection was detected, these neo-colonial policies had left South African with one of the world’s highest levels of unemployment, negative per person GDP growth, world-record inequality and mass poverty, hunger and homelessness. The government’s pathetically incompetent handling of the pandemic has made every one of these far worse.
The survey also confirms that more South Africans are now unemployed and without any income than those who are working, and that the pain has not been uniformly felt.
Groups who have always been more vulnerable – women, Africans/Blacks, youth and the less-educated – have been disproportionately negatively affected. Indeed “we are not in this together”.
Net job losses were higher for women than men, with women accounting for two-thirds. Between February and April, there was a 22% drop in the share of women with jobs, compared to a 10% decline in the share of men employed, thus increasing the already severe gender gap in employment, and reversing what little progress has been made previously.
The survey further reveals that “One in five respondents reported that someone in their household went hungry in the last seven days, and 1-in-7 reported that a child had gone hungry in the last seven days… In households that experienced hunger in the last seven days, 42% managed to shield children from that hunger”.
The survey also confirms that the UIF system has failed: “Urgent attention needs to be given to rectifying technical glitches that exist in the UIF system.”
Only 20% of those surveyed who were eligible for the temporary employment relief payment received it. And of about six million applicants for the social relief of distress grant, just under one million had received the paltry R350 grant at the time of the survey.
In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa’s early and extensive lockdown was recognised as one of the better responses compared to other countries. At the end of March, President Ramaphosa shut shops, ordered people to stay at home and the country had only 400 cases and no recorded deaths.
But while other countries’ governments, even right-wing ones, were forced to spend billions to pay at least some of furloughed workers’ wages and alleviate poverty, the ANC government failed abysmally to deliver even the minimal hand-outs they had promised to those who lost their jobs.
They failed to speedily provide personal protective clothing and equipment and essential medical supplies to staff in hospitals, clinics and care homes, leaving them exposed to shocking working conditions. Health workers are forced to risk their lives in order to save the lives of others, whilst being denied risk allowances or tax breaks.
The ‘test, track and trace’ programme has hardly started, so that urgently-needed medical care cannot be directed to those areas where people are most at risk. Even though South Africa has had a TB tracing programme and many mineworkers with diseases have had support for similar health emergencies once they organised and made demands on employees, this experience is not translating to the broader society. It is a case, again, where working-class leadership and demands for justice, going back decades and involving President Ramaphosa when he led a mineworker’s union, has been neglected by an arrogant government.
As a result of not using the lockdown time to boost the healthcare system, the society is entering the highest-risk period with a disempowered state. When Finance Minister Tito Mboweni cut R3.9 billion from the health budget in late February even though Covid-19 was looming and probably already present in South Africa, why was he not replaced or at minimum disciplined for this treacherous fiscal conservatism? When he provides only R36 billion worth of fiscal stimulus, and insufficient funding to build up our health system defence, why is he still treated with respect by the ruling class?
In the Eastern Cape, the entire health network is crumbling, placing even more lives at risk, a crisis made even more serious by the evident outbreak of corruption by officials and businesses who have been cashing in on the pandemic to line their pockets. Why is Treasury’s team responsible for halting procurement fraud – which one official in 2016 admitted amounted to 35-40% of a typical tender – not in the least visible? This is Public-Private-Plundering partnerships, and government seems to have no will to halt the tsotsis.
Worst of all, Ramaphosa buckled under pressure from big business to get workers back to work, long before it was safe to do so. Our mineworkers and communities are suffering terribly – in conditions far removed from the mining bosses and state officials. Workers still face the deadly choice – go back to work and risk infection or stay at home and face starvation to death?
The President quickly decided for them – profits must be put before lives. The capitalist billionaires who were responsible for South Africa’s economic collapse in the first place were to be allowed to get back to business as usual regardless of the cost to their workers and the health of all the people.
Schools were also ordered to reopen, and again without the necessary measures to ensure the safety of learners and teachers. Only a heroic campaign by teachers’ unions forced the government to delay, and thus protect society’s health. But all the romantic talk of a 4th Industrial Revolution, and all the advantages enjoyed by private school children living comfortably in suburbs with high-speed internet, are denied to our masses of working-class and poor families. If you do have a laptop and data, but live in swathes of Johannesburg townships, it still does not help your child keep up with schooling, because Eskom is engaged in apartheid-style collective electricity disconnections in areas simply because of a high default rate, even if a customer has been paying.
The latest outrage is the government’s capitulation to taxi owners to allow them to cram their vehicles with full loads with no social distancing, a measure which is guaranteed to raise infections dramatically.
All this was done without any consultation with the labour movement, communities and civil society, or even the ANC-dominated parliament.
As a result of all these premature relaxations of the lockdown, added to all the other indignities and the extreme vulnerability faced now by millions of households, the level of Covid-19 infections has soared to over 300,000. This is the highest in Africa and in the top eight in the world. The government has confirmed that it expects that between 40 000 and 50 000 deaths will occur from the pandemic.
SAFTU demands that the government start to treat both the threat to lives and the jobless bloodbath as a national emergency and immediately take steps to turn the tide.
Most crucially the state must take full control of the process, as even many right-wing governments have already done (if in these cases only temporarily). Private businesses worldwide have shown their impotence in the face of such a crisis. In several European countries, emergency healthcare nationalisation has been the solution. In even Boris Johnson’s ultra-right -Tory Britain, he survived a near-death experience with Covid-19 thanks to the National Health Service.
The need to nationalise those failing – but urgently-needed – parts of the economy is particularly acute in a South Africa where capitalist free-market policies implemented by the ANC government had already failed .
These policies will never solve the even greater problems we face today.
The government must also cancel Treasury’s neoliberal budget and turn to the strategies proposed instead by progressive economists, who care about the masses and are not hesitant to punish corporate malfeasance. The Treasury and Reserve Bank are not only failing to solve the country’s economic and social holocaust but have made it even more disastrous.
To survive the hard days, weeks and months immediately ahead, we need emergency legislation to bring the banks, mines, and monopoly industries into public ownership under democratic workers’ and community control and management. We need not only a return to the 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme – which we fear is a hollow promise in the ruling party’s latest economic plan – but the 1955 Freedom Charter economic demands. We need the introduction of an economic plan based on the needs of poor and working people, the youth, the women, the vulnerable, and environment, and not the greed of the billionaires.
On health, the government must immediately:
On jobs, the government must with no delay:
We now know that the SA Reserve Bank can bring massive resources to bear, and that other countries’ Treasuries and central banks are far more serious than ours, in fighting the pandemic. The financing of our fiscal shortfalls is still far lower than we faced in the early 1930s, when the debt/GDP ratio was 125%.
At that time, the government ignored the likes of our current-day credit-rating agency back-seat drivers. It adopted different policies than had prevailed, including nationalised electricity, railroads and steel manufacturing, an infrastructure boom, broader-based inward-industrialisation, a greatly expanded parastatal sector and much more widespread – albeit racially biased – state services, and far less reliance on international capitalism during the Great Depression and World War II. In the United States, a New Deal emphasised similar programmes.
There is no reason we cannot do so now, with our country desperate to acquire the needed public goods – health services, income support, basic (reliable) infrastructure including even water and electricity, decent housing, food sovereignty, post-carbon industrialisation and a basic trust in our state – that are currently denied us.
Lives and jobs before profits!