From jobless growth to the living wage

On the eighth day of the South African trip, we met Isabelle and Glen, who came from the NGO and labour movement set up the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute in 2006, which very much reminds me of what Compass was like when it first started.

They described how social security reform is currently based on the industrialised version — the assumption of full employment which is why no income support exists. In fact, in South Africa, over 7 million people of working age have no visible forms of income.

Although the government is trying to support to entrepreneurs, it is difficult to identify markets for locally produced goods. Similarly, given the important role women have in the informal economy, when they join government welfare-to-work programmes, when the programme finishes, they are displaced from that informal economy. This brought home to me the question of how can people or groups organise in the informal economy?

With South Africa based on monopolies of social and economic elites, the current macro-economic policy in the country focuses on GDP rather than GIA and therefore reducing state expenditure, resulting in “jobless growth” and a “dual labour market” with increases in shareholder profits as people unemployed (especially young people with 40% out of work).

Indeed, the wider relationship between citizens and the state has dramatically changed. While the shadow of the state threatened the corners of every street in the apartheid years — symbolised through the casspir — nowadays, the shadow of the state is no longer threatening by its presence but in many ways by its absence, especially in the townships.

All of this is happening in the context of growing violence and deteriorating mental health and wellbeing of the population, partly from the lasting effects of the dehumanisation from the apartheid era, but also from the striking inequalities.

There were interesting parallels between the strength of the civil society and the vacuum of provision of public services in townships, but also between that granite strength of the Constitution around socio-economic rights and the anarchic unpredictability in implementing those rights, such as access to water and housing.

As such, there is a feeling by civil society of deep betrayal by the government.

But even civil society is dominated by monopolies, partly through the historic need to centralise to unite against apartheid. They warned that NGOs should be thinking about working themselves out of a job, especially as many of them are from the middle classes and don’t live in the townships. Their understanding of social reality is distanced from where they live themselves.

However, there are exciting groups organising such as the Centre for Policy Development, VITS EPU and the Global Campaign for Education. In terms of policy development, previously this got made at the ANC Congress, but more and more it is about lobbying groups getting their slice of the cake rather than building relationships with individuals and community groups.

They did warn that as long as the ruling class didn’t give a dam, you need a crisis in society for them to react. The commitments are there from the government, but not much has been done.

They argued that as much as they were a campaigning thinktank, it was important they weren’t gatekeepers. They were trying to create spaces for interaction while pushing issues to the top of the agenda, like

  • campaigning for the government to use its 3% budget surplus to introduce comprehensive social security
  • capping higher wages and introducing a living wage

Sounds familiar?