Honour spirit, not just letter of the lawComment on this story
Western Cape - Everybody is ticking the boxes. But it’s not good enough when compassion and generosity of spirit are sorely absent in a country that is among the most unequal in the world.
And ticking boxes – or following the letter, not the spirit of the law – doesn’t cut it when the constitution’s founding provisions talk of “accountability”, “responsiveness” and “openness” in relation to democratic governance.
Amid the farm strikes in the Western Cape, Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson ticked the box: wage disputes were not her field, she said, and instead she submitted proposals for a revised minimum wage to her cabinet colleague, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant. Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu took the same line in the wake of the Marikana killings.
AgriSA, the farmers’ association, also ticked the box, saying farmers paid the legally stipulated minimum wage of R69 a day. However, a minimum wage is just that – the least that has to be paid by law, while there is nothing stopping anyone from paying more.
Mining companies caught in the midst of almost 12 weeks of wildcat strikes, which moved from the platinum belt to the gold and coal fields, also just ticked the box.
There could be no new wage agreement in the middle of the collective bargaining cycle, as this would undermine collective bargaining procedures, the argument ran, although, legally, exceptional circumstances could be declared to reopen talks early. Little mention was made of what had sparked the wildcat strikes: a R700-odd pay hike for some pay grades – not rock drillers – which companies styled as a gratuity.
At Marikana, the police ticked the box. The SAPS sent a monitoring and negotiation team in first because it wanted strikers to disarm and disperse. But every rule in the conflict resolution manual was broken when police simply shouted from an armour-plated Nyala with the engine running that the strikers’ representatives must “sondela” (come closer).
There is the fact and the fiction of consultation and participatory democracy. And these days it seems there is more fiction.
Boxes are ticked and crossed off in key performance areas with one consideration: it looks good on paper. After all, no one, if one is not actually in the rural areas, in the shacklands, or at a commission of inquiry – and is able to speak out – can tell whether a real difference is made for the better in people’s lives.
Bureaucrats seem to pay more attention to protocol – standing up when a minister or president walks into a room and ensuring there are enough blue-light escorts around – than to, say, service delivery or just plain Batho Pele.
How is it possible that a nurse at a Gauteng public hospital can tell an elderly domestic worker needing a cataract operation it costs R3 000, when the operation is free?
How is it possible for the Gauteng government to bulldoze brick and mortar homes people had built rather than wait for RDP houses, as one woman told a television news crew, when it should, in the first place, have ensured no one erected homes on empty land earmarked since 2006 for state-subsidised housing?
Much has been made of the violence of the recent farm and mining strikes, and the community service delivery protests. Setting alight vineyards, barricading roads with burning tyres and bricks, intimidating those who want to work and killing are unacceptable.
Finish and klaar.
But as the research “The Smoke That Calls” shows, often protests are a last resort as politicians and officials, or employers and trade unions, ignore their constituencies.
The research by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and Wits University also argues community service delivery protests are often intricately tied to ruling-party factional power plays. At another level, anecdotes abound about senior civil servants, many of whom are card-carrying party members, too afraid to make decisions in case a new minister should have different ideas. Councillors, according to one Idasa study done before the 2011 local government elections, are seen to be more interested in awarding tenders to friends and relatives.
Put this together with public misspending to the tune of more than R26 billion, ministerial stays at luxury hotels and fancy flights and the apparent ease of allocating millions for “security” measures at the president’s Nkandla homestead, while on the waiting list are upgrades in community-protest stung Ficksburg, where activist and would-be-councillor Andries Tatane was shot dead by police.
It enforces perceptions of an inefficient state which services the elite, not the people.
And poor people are poor, not stupid.
When corporate South Africa hoards hundreds of billions of rand in bank accounts, does business really have the right to complain about the lack of skills and slow economic growth in the country?
Can trade unions afford complacency – a significant number of Cosatu members today are civil servants – and focus on housing subsidies rather than bread-and-butter issues when millions of South Africans raise families on R3 500 or less a month?
The lessons of having been able to negotiate its way out of apartheid for the better of all seem to have been lost in South Africa. Instead, the strong-man attitude has returned – across the board.
Send in the army, says Western Cape premier and DA leader Helen Zille, to deal with farm strikes and policing on the Cape Flats.
Yet negotiating still works. If there is the will, some creativity and commitment, going beyond the letter of the law to capture its spirit, and that of the constitution, pays off.
A series of meetings under the auspices of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) settled the Lonmin unprotected strike.
There followed a series of talks between the Chamber of Mines and the National Union of Mineworkers which resulted in thousands of striking miners returning underground, their demands for a minimum monthly wage of anything from R12 000 to R18 000 unrealised.
There has again been talk of a social compact to overcome South Africa’s challenges. It’s not new – remember the ANC election manifesto, now part of government banners and speeches, talking of “Working Together We Can Do More”?
This renewed talk of a social compact, however, has focused on the frivolously symbolic: a pay freeze, not a cut, for top leaders.
And while President Jacob Zuma on Thursday said his cabinet and directors-general had agreed to a year-long pay freeze, it is a meaningless gesture. Just a few weeks ago the cabinet’s 5.5 percent pay hikes came into effect, raising the president’s salary to R2.6m.
Such a gesture ignores the inherent power relations in society – between the poor and the moneyed, between those outside the political inner circle and those banking on political connectivity for their gains, between those in an office and those on farms, in mines and our homes.
A true social compact – not just generous words uttered after meetings in airconditioned venues or rhetoric of being the leader of the people – must be followed through by active steps to mitigate inequality. Consultation must happen with citizens of all social standing and a start would be to ensure information on services – a right under the constitution and not a nice-to-have from the state – is made available in every corner of the country.
Politicians must take charge of their portfolios in the broadest possible sense, but not as an ego trip.
If the private sector can donate schools which cost R5m each, why is the state paying about R30m on tender?
It is crucial that corporate South Africa turns its back on tolerance of unethical business practices like collusion among those who provide bread and dairy products and other goods, in the construction sector and elsewhere.
Real buy-in from business is needed rather than fancy, but ultimately cheap, cost-to-company, corporate social responsibility once-offs.
For a social compact to succeed, it must live up to the accountability, responsiveness and openness enshrined in the constitution which binds every South African.
It can no longer be just about ticking the box.