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The ANC and other political parties should work to enhance the dignity of the working-class masses, writes Ebrahim Harvey
Johannesburg - In just nine months this country goes to the polls in its fifth non-racial and democratic elections since the historic 1994 breakthrough.
But we must place what has happened in this country since then in perspective to appreciate what is at stake in the elections and what therefore must be uppermost in the minds of both voters and political parties.
However, this article seeks frankly to place the basic interests and needs of black working people at the centre of its analysis, without any need to apologise and rationalise, save to say that they constitute the overwhelming majority of our society, they bore the brunt of the brutal system of apartheid and were subjected to some of the worst exploitation of workers the modern world has ever seen.
Furthermore, an avalanche of overtly racist legislation controlled every aspect of their lives, from dusk to dawn.
It is also a pivotal fact and undeniable reality that it is the back-breaking toil of the black working class throughout the 20th century that built this country to be economically the most powerful in Africa today.
Thanks to the leading role played by the ruling ANC during the Struggle, black workers who previously had no rights today enjoy a variety of political and social freedoms, such as the right to vote and choose their representatives, and they are no longer subject to a plethora of oppressive and humiliating restrictions and controls of their movements in urban areas.
As a result you will not find a single black worker today who does not recognise the fundamental political transformation we have undergone since 1994 and how much they have benefited from these changes. In fact, one cannot sufficiently emphasise how important these changes have been for society on the whole.
But it is an equally undeniable reality that today the very black working class who have historically constituted the overwhelming majority of the support the ANC enjoyed is going through the worst times since the end of apartheid.
Our economy, like the rest of the world economy, is in the throes of the worst crisis in the modern world. Unemployment and deepening poverty and inequalities are so widespread today that it is no exaggeration to say it seriously threatens to derail and undermine our political democracy.
It can even be argued that this process has already started.
But it is not only the interests and needs of the black working class that are under sustained attack by the growing economic and social crisis. The black middle class has also been decimated by this crisis since late 2008. The retrenchments since then have taken their toll on what was a rapidly growing class.
The rate of repossessions of houses and cars followed quickly on the heels of massive job losses. Unlike the white middle class who could partly rely on wider family and social network support during difficult moments – thanks to the accumulated wealth and other benefits decades of apartheid made possible due to the super-exploitation of the black working class – the new and emerging black middle class had only their salaries to rely on. But the needs of the black middle class pale in comparison to the needs of ordinary black workers, especially those millions plagued by chronic poverty and unemployment and the resultant widening social inequalities.
Having briefly characterised the current socio-economic crisis and its devastating effects on the black working class we need to ask this critical question: do the policies and programmes of the ruling ANC meet the basic needs and interests of this class? The ANC has to accept that various demands of both the 1955 Freedom Charter and the 1993 Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) have either not been implemented at all or have been emasculated due to the adoption of some neo-liberal policies since 1994, notably cost recovery, through the commercialisation and commodification of basic services, such as water and electricity beyond paltry free services delivered monthly.
Scrutinised, the roots of the chronic and unstoppable township and often violent protests since June 2004 can partly be attributed to these policies. This story has been told in many books and other publications over the past decade. But was it not, on the other hand, for the introduction by the ANC-led government of the poverty-alleviating social grants to presently about 15 million people, their situation would have been far worse. However, the ANC must not take undue comfort from these grants but instead actively seek to create a society wherein the poorest are not forced to depend on them just to stay alive and the ruling party equally not forced to provide them for the same reason. The only way this can be achieved in our society is through job creation.
Instead unemployment is today at its highest since 1994, making it very clear that these grants are going to be fairly permanent and the ranks of recipients will continue to swell.
The big problem is that there is no other party that will contest the elections which has unambiguously pro-poor or working-class policies for all essential and basic services.
It is precisely because of commercialised basic services beyond these tiny free allowances that the movement for decommodification has grown among trade unions and other parts of civil society.
There is no doubt that it can potentially become a very powerful movement because it rightly makes the adequate satisfaction of basic needs of paramount importance, irrespective of political persuasion. Building a so-called human-centred society would be a hypocritical farce if the full satisfaction of such needs is not of the highest priority.
Though the raging debates about what is an adequate and decent amount of water and electricity services for poor households will be ongoing, dependent on family size and consumption needs and trends, the key underlying theme is that all poor and unemployed people should not be deprived of adequate essential services simply because they don’t have money to pay for them, which is tantamount to punishing them for being poor and unemployed or, worse these days in many cases, unemployable.
The arguments why the rich must bear an even greater responsibility, for the burden of cost recovery through an appropriate tariff structure is even more compelling.
Although the ANC is under threat both from the gravity of its own internal problems and externally from new and emerging opposition parties, it will comfortably win the election, partly because the opposition is fragmented and partly because of its still powerful historical symbolism, as the leading and most heroic party of liberation, although significant inroads have been made in some of its former strongholds.
But it will win the elections even more comfortably if, for example, it doubled the current small lifeline provisions for domestic water and electricity in black townships, and moved swiftly to fundamentally change the often disastrous and dangerous sanitary conditions in many townships and thereby enable the poorest to live in greater dignity.
Key and critical to health, hygiene and a better life for all is adequate amounts of water and electricity and flush sanitation, especially when just putting some food on the table is a major concern for millions of unemployed and poor people during these very hard times.
* Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer, analyst and author of Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.