A woman dons a fake R200 note, with the words "National Minimum Wage" printed on it, during a Cosatu protest. File picture: Nic Bothma/EPA

South Africa last week finally got a view of what the national minimum wage could look like once implemented. According to the crafters of the proposal, any working person worth his or her salt should expect a payment of R20 an hour, or about R3 500 a month for their toll.

Negotiators apparently settled on the figure after labour and community constituencies at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) wanted the level to be set between R3 700 and R4 500.

Read also: Disparity in SA is worst in the world

The wisdom behind the compromise was that while R3 500 could not lift the poorest of the poor out of crippling poverty, it would go a long way in offering relief to 41.6 percent of workers earning less than R3 000 a month.

Not a living wage

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted as much when he said this was not a living or decent wage, but rather an attempt to address inequality and problems that have dodged the country’s working poor.

So given the extreme exploitation that the most vulnerable such as domestic and farm workers experience on a daily basis, this should then be seen as a good start to something that could ultimately be increased in the future.

Add to that our economic woes - most of whom are self-inflicted - we can understand the tight fiscal space that the negotiators navigated, while trying to stimulate a stagnant economy. For with a few extra rands, workers could start buying more, and help move South Africa from a commodity-based economy to one that is driven by consumption.

In an ideal world, such consumption would then increase revenue and allow the government to expand on its infrastructural development project or what ANC secretary- general Gwede Mantashe calls a construction site.

This would then make the irritant rating agencies see that we are not as bad as the world thinks and that we can actually come out with solutions that benefit both the workers and the government as well as bring some sort of social justice to workers that is difficult to come by in South Africa these days.

Expectedly, some people saw the minimum labour figure as an insult to the working poor as most of the money would in any event be spent on transport and other bare necessities that these workers use in order to get to work.

They correctly pointed out that the difficulty is not so much about a number, it is more about a coherent strategy that is supported by both business and labour in addressing some of the country’s historical injustices.

An injustice borne by the fact that while the country was trying to grapple with what an acceptable minimum wage would be for the exploited, another report, released hours later, showed that the average increase of chief executive’s total pay climbed 11 percent from R7.6 million in 2009 to R13.3m in 2015.

The Directors Remuneration report, compiled by specialist consultancy Khokhela, analysed the remuneration paid to directors of JSE-listed companies with an annual turnover of R200m or more.

The report said that total remuneration for chief financial officers also increased from R4.8m in 2009 to R8.3m in 2015 on an average of 11 percent per year, in line with that of chief executives.

It said the research showed that generally the remuneration of executive directors followed a similar trend with the total remuneration of executive directors increasing from R4.6m in 2009 to R8m in 2015.

The two reports basically pointed to a contradiction that South Africa has always been trapped in and a widening gulf that exists between the country’s lowest and highest paid workers.

For a country that is said to be one of the most unequal in the world, the two reports also showed a growing lack of trust that not only exists between social classes in South Africa, but also between races.

For in their interpretation, the two reports clearly told us that the bottom rungs of our economic structure continued to be dominated by black South Africans (who continue to believe that the freedom that they voted for in 1994 will one day deliver them from poverty), while the upper rungs remained white.

They said in no uncertain terms that the structure was also sexist, as women continued to be under-represented in revenue-generating positions.

This is a cocktail for a popular discontent that could lead to more problems for a country that cannot even figure itself out.

Former president Thabo Mbeki tried his best to expand the economy and make it more representative.

During his time in office, the economy grew on average by 4.5 percent.

He used this to create employment in the middle sectors of the economy and oversaw a fast-growing black middle class with the implementation of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).

His vision attracted the bulk of Africa’s foreign direct investments and made South Africa the focal point of African growth.

His theory was that BEE should see more black people and women ascending the rungs of JSE-listed companies to make it more representative.

Mbeki saw the expansion of the black middle class as another form of beneficiation for extended relatives that would give the dispossessed a slice of the economy.

Sadly his vision also attracted people who believed that it was their turn to eat and to replace white faces with black in this economic contradiction. It brought us a few who believed that they could pay lip-service to transformation and man the gates of white conglomerates.

So much so that since his unceremonious recall in 2008, the country continues to fail coming out with a coherent programme that will address social inequalities and injustices.

Back seat

Brilliant programmes such as the National Development Plant have taken a back seat as politicians prioritise personal preferences over the economy.

Small wonder then that more than 22 years into democracy, South Africa is still arguing over R3 500 as a minimum wage.

But South Africa will be well advised to study developments across the world, which have in the past few years shown us that ordinary people are getting more tired of the established political and economic elite.

The country should look to the rise of populism in its political scene to see just how the majority remains not convinced that their problems are being taken seriously by their leaders.

It is this discontent that has also seen the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe and the US.

Just this month, US voters gave us one Donald Trump - a personification of the racist, sexist, and bigotry triumph over an equitable world.

Next year, Trump will, for all intents and purposes, become the new face of what is likely to be a new world order.

And the rest of the world will wonder how things came to be like this.

It is imperative that South Africa retraces its step as a centre of progressive thinking by coming out with a more humane structure that will not demand that only the poor bear the blame for our economic woes.

Even the rich will have to play their part.

Failing which, the wrangle over R3 500 would become a costly conflict that generations after will carry for years to come.

* Sechaba ka’Nkosi’s column - The Shake-Up - is published in Business Report.