The New Frontby Paul Hjul / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 24.05.2012
The first casualty of politics is truth, the second is common sense and the third is the sanctity of human beings. The riotous behaviour in Johannesburg on Tuesday 15th May is just one of South Africa’s recent illustrations of this Aeschylusean truth*. Let’s unpack some of the elements of this event, and how they relate to the Youth Wage Subsidy and the general tragic tendencies that pervade contemporary South African politics.
For some time COSATU have been performing an admirable, and remarkable, function of applying pressure with the “try-apartheid” alliance to prevent the wholesale decent into kleptocracy. (This sadly has been the trajectory of the ANC since the arms deal). In the process Zwelinzima Vavi has managed to build the persona of a champion for the progressive democracy which South Africans committed to in our Constitution. As ‘Captain South Africa’ Vavi’s politics matter a great deal. And not to put too fine a point on it, for many Vavi is an untrustworthy and evil red commie. For other people (and I am in this school) he is a man with integrity who is misguided in both his loyalties and his economics. What COSATU does, more than political parties outside of the terrible two, matters to South Africa’s political and civic landscape; the cry that “organized labour is too powerful” is essentially an acknowledgement of the mammoth that is COSATU.
During the same time period as Vavi’s rise, the DA has successfully cannibalized opposition space in our multiparty democracy. (The core difference between the DA and the ANC is that whilst the ANC seeks a one party state the DA seeks a two party one). Since 1997 the DA has aggressively undermined smaller political parties and grass root movements. In the process Helen Zille has shed her persona as a reasonable, multilingual part-successor to Dame Suzman. Zille’s decline is tragic considering her notable role as a journalist in opposing apartheid and her pivotal role in exposing the murder of Steve Biko. Her repeated Twittergates and mutation of persona into an uncomfortable merger of Sarah Palin and Margret Thatcher, leave many die hard partisan “prog” DA supporters cringing. Sadly the measure of success opted by the DA is an assent to power – regardless of what liberals, critics, journalists and others labelled by Blade Nzimande as the third force may say, or how history will judge the party harshly. The preppy power pack “leadership” style of Zille, Mazibuko and van Linge (of the NCOP) is bound to lead to confrontation with “lazy, insolent labour” who ultimately are the great obstacle to the progress Ayn Rand has, with exceptional wisdom, chartered for us (and the rest of the world).
The DA is competing with the SACP for the title of most reactionary and hysterical organization in the South African political landscape. And whilst it certainly has been lapped by the ANC it remains a notable contender in the race for receiving funding under the most questionable of circumstances and from the most questionable of sources. A consequence of Vavi’s growing ‘Captain South Africa’ persona, is that the DA and COSATU have found themselves on the same side of the table in opposing acts of grand government stupidity or corruption – leading to rather amusing suggestions of the possibility of their joining in an alliance.
All of this leads to the DA deciding to convene a march to COSATU’s headquarters in Johannesburg as a protest against COSATU’s opposition to the Youth Wage Subsidy. Having failed to call COSATU into the headmistress’s office for a well deserved scolding what else could the DA do? COSATU, with true leftist rhetoric flair, spewed irresponsible and inflammatory nonsense and called up their troops to defend the beloved headquarters; which is occupied by COSATU’s elite leadership and not front of the line workers (such as those whose rights are daily undermined by a horrendous employer – government). The authorities failed to provide adequate policing and to properly utilize the Regulation of Gatherings Act to prevent a foray into violence.
Eventually rocks were thrown and people were injured. The people injured were not, however, the political leadership which created the situation. As with the tragedy at the University of Johannesburg South Africans have yet again been reminded of the terrible state of how South Africa as a society treats matriculants and young graduates. As well as how the ruling elite attempt to maintain absolute control over our society and see nothing in relegating young people to a place predetermined by circumstances. A great deal of rhetorical gymnastics, sophistry and intellectual dishonesty is required to mould the event into a “declaration of class war” or to (as the SACP has introduced into the discussion) see “black on black violence”.
Ultimately the DA and COSATU have irreconcilable differences of opinion, both about the nature of man and about the best courses of action to reduce misery and bring about prosperity, but they have more in common than either would admit. Both organizations frequently fail to actually implement what they profess and have a track record of adopting populist sentiment over rational adherence to their professed beliefsand; both organizations take great pains to paint the other organization as being insensitive to the plight of the poor and unemployed without acknowledging that their own position is driven by self-interest and preservation.
While COSATU’s position and self interest does lend itself to advancing the interests of the employed over the creation of employment for the unemployed, the presence of mass unemployment is a threat to worker’s interests because of the social costs brought with unemployment. It simply is not true to suggest that COSATU intends to exclude the unemployed as a matter of absolute policy. Workers in South Africa have demonstrated themselves to have remarkable consideration for the collective suffering in our society. What COSATU’s beliefs, policies and self interest does demand is that, absent a higher purpose, current workers position be protected at the expense of the unemployed and youth. The ending of apartheid was such a higher purpose and many workers in acts of heroic solidarity placed their wages – and sometimes their jobs – on the line. Ultimately the record suggests that COSATU and its members can be called upon to consider the greater good and that they should be called to do just this.
On the flipside of the coin, there is a wonderfully South African myth that the DA is a uniquely capitalist interest representing party. This myth is simply not true. The major capital interests operating in South Africa have their bets well hedged across the political parties and formations. If COSATU truly wishes to see our political discourse escape a cesspool of “capitalist” corruption it will acknowledge this fact: The DA, like the ANC and the SACP is a voluntary organization “owned” by its contemporary membership and unfortunately this means that if members can be bought (or rented) the organization is open to abuse. Further COSATU is a not insignificant “capitalist” itself, considering its investment holdings – and some of the scandals arising there from.
The truth is that, with the rise of expanded pension coverage and unemployment insurance (as a principle if not a reality) together with the opening of financial service products and land ownership to broader society, old Marxist divisions between an exploitative capitalist class (who own the means of production) and a worker class (who provide labour) is a lot more murky than most Marxists can intellectually account for. The reality is that more damning divisions have been created between those excluded from economic activity and those who have economic agency; it is those people relegated to unemployment and poverty who are thoroughly exploited. As evidenced in the Fidentia scandal playing out in the Western Cape courts, the great abuses in our global capitalist economy arise out of agent-principal problems where managers of capital that they do not own (but have absolute control over) behave with great risk and exploitation leaving in their wake the devastation of both the owners of the capital and the labour which work the capital – and which may in fact be one and the same.
The DA’s support for many policies arise not from a mega-plan to oppress the already oppressed but rather out of a belief that such policies are for the greater good of society The DA, like COSATU, has every reason to wish to reduce unemployment and misery and to increase prosperity for all. The real tragedy of the DA after 1994 (as the DP) has been its systematic transformation from a party which tried to convince whites that it was in their long term interests to support non-racial multiparty rule into a party trying to convince blacks to support a “historically white” party. This transformation has forced the party into adopting bizarre positions and populist causes. For example the DA’s opposition to e-Tolling, as the DA clearly have no problem with dodgy dealings involving German businesspeople (Harksen?) or the imposition of road privatization and unpopular gantry construction (Chapman’s Peak?), so why did they so emphatically join the repudiation of Treasury and SANRAL, who they have historically praised? Clamouring for the youth smells of the same populist sentiment, but – as they rightly point out – Treasury have thought out the details. What is peculiar is how the project hopes to spend five billion rand while applying trickle down Reaganomics.
As the Unemployed Peoples Movement have pointed out the government needs to be providing support to the poor rather than to businesses which is what the subsidy does. The subsidy is not fundamentally the best means to combat misery in South Africa, it is not likely to result in building employment capacity within the economy and the beneficiaries are not likely to be the young people who have been absolutely excluded from the South African economy. However, in light of our political realities and the fact that Treasury is ready to roll out the subsidy, COSATU’s position is more wrong than the DA’s. Accepting that COSATU’s position is “more wrong” does not justify the DA marching on COSATU as the “deadlock” does not arise because of an imagined veto by COSATU but rather because of the processes involved in addressing COSATU’s (very legitimate) concerns – something which is a good thing in a participatory democracy, which is what we should be working towards. If COSATU wish to truly trump the DA they will take the opportunity afforded them to properly engage Treasury and support the subsidy being rolled out for a limited period to ultimately be replaced by a universal basic income grant which is what South Africa truly needs.
In advance of my being accused of being an evil agent irrationally opposed to the DA let me make it plain that I fully commend the bravery and resolve of the DA supporting youth who are challenging our society to create a place for them, if nothing else the engagement processes involving COSATU will occur more quickly. What I oppose – and have opposed in this article – is the manner in which the political machinery of our country corrupts discourse and discards any aspirations for future generations. The most vile entry into the saga has been the vitriolic, untrue and racialist statement from the SACP the constituency of that ilk that is Nzimande – who is sadly responsible for providing opportunities to future generations – yet the DA does not march on the SACP (who, more than COSATU, oppose the subsidy). The greatest tragedy though has been how, after reporting on the violence and bloodshed, our national discourse has skipped over to the next presidential scandal and the resolve of those in power to implement censorship over a rather limp painting.
*Aeschylus, the Greek tragedian, appears to be the first observer of the reality that the truth is a casualty of war and as such “the first casualty in war is the truth” is generally attributed (incorrectly) to him. There does not appear to be any particular coining of the extension to politics although it appears in multiple blog posts and articles, perhaps because the extension is inevitable with so much of politics boiling down to warfare by cowards.
**Illustrations © Alastair Laird.