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Pravin Gordhan

Gordhan’s Slip

by Brandon Edmonds / 02.03.2011

There is always a team called “Freudian Slip” at a pub quiz. It’s one of the immutable laws of the universe. Why is it so popular? Maybe because these glitches that act as inadvertent Wikileaks of the actual thoughts of the person talking, still occasionally happen in everyday life. Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, suffered a Freudian slip during the 2011 budget speech: a very revealing one. It happened the moment he referenced the bit in Zuma’s recent State of the Nation address about re-thinking the social burden of the poor.

Let’s trace the background in play here to appreciate Gordhan’s symptomatic slip.

If you missed Zuma’s yawnathon, he said South Africa needs to become a “developmental not a welfare State”. Now there’s a lot of neoliberal history and politics behind that idea. On one level it means, as one analyst puts it, “moving expenditure off the budget and making the user pay for what used to be financed by tax”. Privatizing social services. Extending competition into all areas of public life. Shrinking the State for cost-cutting efficiency. This is pre-Crash market fundamentalism.

But it makes sense locally, given the ever-expanding Public Service Salary bill – what it costs to keep the public sector employed. It’s at R314 billion according to Gordhan. So a startling 40% of all government spending is spent on replicating itself – and that’s rising 8% annually. No surprise then that voices in the ruling party want to re-think the immense social role of the State and finesse future responsibility.

But shifting from a welfare to a developmental State must mean putting the poor and unemployed to work. That’s the only way the term ‘developmental’ makes sense given that, as Business Day puts it, “ANC policies seem designed precisely to establish a welfare state, the latest initiative being the National Health Insurance.” Maybe Zuma means developmental in the Chomsky sense. “Jobs is a way of pronouncing an unpronounceable word,” Chomsky says. “Profits. You’re not allowed to say that word so the way you pronounce it is – jobs.”

Noam Chomsky

And the poor and unemployed would love to work. But there just aren’t any jobs. Or rather, as Chomsky suggests, employers see no profitable way to employ them all. The potential labour of the poor and unemployed, who would love to go from being net capital sinkholes in the fiscus to vibrant productive assets, is essentially worthless to owners and producers. So there just aren’t any jobs. No profits in ‘full employment’ for capital.

Hence the ANC floating the developmental slant. They’re backlash testing. Trying to naturalize a privileged perspective: No more unproductive handouts. No more free rides. They are signaling that the continuing viability of mass social grants will be increasingly assessed in market terms: how much of a productive return is the State getting for all this benevolent social spending?
Jobs can’t keep flowing from the State sector seeing as public workers are expensive and servicing national debt (R1.3 trillion by 2013) is, as Gordhan puts it, “rising faster than any other category of spending.” The twin hazards of rising debt and a burgeoning public wage bill mean the State can’t really keep employing its way to legitimacy forever. But that isn’t stopping the ANC.

Despite a notoriously conservative post-liberation macro-economic policy in thrall to ‘fiscal disclipline’ – the ruling party knows the magic wand is Keynesian supply-side pumping for jobs. It will spend R150 billion on ‘jobs & skills’ over the next 3 years, while 21% of the budget already goes to Education (meaning future jobs by proxy). With chronic youth unemployment at 42% – it’s the least they can do. COSATU remains unimpressed: “Government simply lacks political will to confront the structural crisis we face in relation to youth unemployment.”

Gordhan even introduced an inspired talking-point – a neat little piece of perception smooshing called Inclusive Growth. The goal here is to “shrink inequality” and “benefit the many South Africans who have been left behind.” But ultimately this re-imagining of the poor & unemployed as the chosen subjects of a ‘developmental state’ is further evidence (and really the evidence reaches the moon by now) of the distance the ANC keeps putting between itself and the revolutionary spirit of the Freedom Charter. The finest living document in local history offers a vision of genuine material equality that ought to be far more prevalent than the ritual nationalist replaying of the collaborative genius of Mandela. A genius that enabled enlightened racial shifts, yes, while bolstering the big white monopolies of apartheid capital accumulation. Long walk to freedom? Try quick dash to corporate collaboration.

Union Buildings

The Freedom Charter advocates inclusion and participation, free associations working out collective solutions to basic needs democratically, over ‘anti-cyclical’ macro-economic tinkering to satisfy the IMF and local and international capital. Urging the poor to work in the context of chronic unemployment shines a light on the structural basis of joblessness as COSATU rightly claims. It gets people asking the kinds of questions that challenge patently unequal arrangements and may even have them joining together to change those arrangements as in the Middle East and North Africa. Who owns what and why?

This is really dangerous ground for the ruling party. Social assistance (and the rapidly fading habit of Struggle loyalty) is probably the only thing keeping multiple service delivery protests from coalescing into popular revolutionary transformation (really the spontaneous removal of predatory elites) from below. Elected officials don’t want the historic democratic wave to reach this country because genuine participatory democracy – in the spirit of the Freedom Charter – would challenge the current liberal-representative limits of the South African state – a format offering little more than empty freedom amidst rampant inequality. Which brings us to Gordhan’s slip.

After hailing the shift in orientation away from “welfare dependence” to development, he paraphrased a Xhosa saying: “Don’t do it… let’s do it ourselves!” There was laughter in the House. The Finance Minister’s telling slip – ‘Don’t do it ourselves’ – suggests the callous insulation of the governing elite; what anarchist Mikhail Bakunin called “the immense army of government officials who exploit the people in order to provide the bureaucrats with all the comforts of life.”

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RESPONSES (26)
  1. Lizzy says:

    I read the speech and was wondering what that quote meant. thanks for the enlightenment!
    If only the Expanded Public works programme was worth the cost of conceptualising it – I have little faith that providing jobs and providing infrastruture and housing can happen simultaneously to the same effect as during the great depression. lets try hold onto a small shred of hope, though.

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  2. yes but says:

    Edmonds, it’s time that someone challenged you more directly on your endless stream of hypocritical neo-socialist rhetoric. You use sophisticated and finessed language to create the impression that you are a literate and experienced authority on these issues, but those of us who have read your well-written pieces over a long period know very well that you are an unemployed sourpuss with no experience of achieving anything of note in the real world. You have confined yourself to the lofty and abstracted world of theory while others in positions of actual responsibility struggle daily to make things work under far-from-perfect circumstances. If you want more of our respect and attention – get yourself a job working for an NGO or even the government where you start accepting some direct responsibility for decisions that you are forced to make.

    And secondly, it’s time that we see South Africa’s socioeconomic circumstances in a different light. This country is still the strongest economy on the continent. It attracts hundreds of thousands of migrants from thousands of kilometers away, people who arrive with nothing and who manage to make a healthy existence for themselves here without any safety net in the form of welfare or goverment assistance. They rely entirely on their ingenuity and energy to succeed. There are millions of South Africans who see this and, instead of learning from these successes, prefer to intimidate these people.

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  3. Rare. Golden. Collectables says:

    ” but those of us who have read your well-written pieces over a long period know very well that you are an unemployed sourpuss with no experience of achieving anything of note in the real world.”

    hahahah brandon got owned

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  4. dudie says:

    @ yes but: so are you saying that the south african people are useless; if migrant workers can make it, what does that say about our own people? I must agree with you – a large percentage of the unemployed are unemployable because they don’t really want to work in the first place. They are like crocodiles in a river – open-mouthed, waiting for the fish to jump in. But when the drought comes they start biting their buddies instead of making a different plan.
    But at the same time you can’t grill Edmonds for being an idealistic writer; perhaps that is why he chooses not to work, so his ideas are not flawed by the ‘bad people’ in the corporate world. What he is doing in his article is giving the lowdown on the system of things and the propaganda of it all.
    But you, YES BUT, seem like you are pro-ANC, which, if true, means that you are a victim of the propaganda machine yourself. And I want to know what then makes you think that the ANC is practical in any sense? That’s if my speculation is correct of course.

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  5. yes but says:

    I am pro-initiative and pro-ingenuity, which means that on most issues I am definitely NOT pro-ANC. It’s time that we started seeing social debate in SA as something totally separate from political ideology and rather as a set of agreeables that all citizens buy into irrespective of their political allegiance.

    Here’s one thing that Edmonds needs to wake up to – ideology does not put food on the table. Ideology in itself does not generate wealth or support for its citizens. Brandon has had this constant kneejerk reaction against two ripostes that are regularly aimed at his commentaries: firstly that laziness at any level in society is a very real threat to the welfare of all of us and secondly that tax collection is the primary foundation on which government’s ability to support society depends. These are very real practicalities on which all of us depend and they are things that exist totally independently of any political ideology.

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  6. brandon edmonds says:

    Um I’m a writer. I write. Calling my pieces ‘well-written’ is honestly the summit of my expectations. It’s very weird that you feel entitled to dispense insults and career guidance from the shadows rather than engage with what I wrote which, since I hope we’ve never met, is really all we have to go on.

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  7. yes but says:

    No Brandon, you are clearly more than just a writer, you are an unashamed political critic with a very passionate view on what is good for our country and what is not. But this opinion has not been tempered with enough experience of the real world – exposure to practical realities that would assist you in realising that detailed action plans, clear communication and good management skills are infinitely more important to all of us than Freudian slips. If you were more dedicated to these issues on the ground your treatment of them in your writing would be less fickle.

    That old “I’m just a writer” excuse is wearing very thin.

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  8. nobutt says:

    An even older conceit than the ‘i’m just a writer’ excuse is shortchanging ideas over ‘experience of the real world’ (which you assume because I advocate political ideas contrary to you own, I don’t have). I’m getting a better sense of who you are at least: ‘detailed action plans, clear communication and good management skills’ reads like a memo from David Brent. Your idea of the ‘real world’ is Business English.

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  9. yes but says:

    nobutt=brandon? maybe? maybe not?

    Brandon has made it very clear via a multitude of posts on this site that he has been unemployed for a long period of time and that he has little to no experience of managing anything of much social significance. This is not an assumption fuelled by a difference in political ideology, it’s an established fact.

    That David Brent analogy is cute. Would you direct it at a succesful CEO or senior government official who happened to use the same phrases?

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  10. nobutt says:

    Yeah I don’t see why I should be attached to my name while you float free. You’re obsessed with ‘managing’ and suffer the kind of automatic respect for authority figures (‘a successful CEO’) that locks the status quo in place. I was hoping this would get interesting. It hasn’t. Probably because you never bothered to engage with the actual content of the article.

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  11. yes but says:

    Hey okay, I’ll engage with the “substance” of this piece – it’s nothing but a disparate group of anecdotes that have been thinly rolled together to stroke your firmly entrenched political ideology. I could just as easily criticise you for not engaging with the substance of Gordhan’s budget speech, only choosing to cherrypick certain phrases and a linguistic faux pas as veiled evidence of some kind of hidden agenda.

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  12. Shirley says:

    Brandon – really this is a very poor piece of writing, ridden with basic factual inaccuracies (e.g. the Keynesian “magic wand” is demand and not supply driven) and an uncertain ideological agenda.

    Profit is a basic motive for private enterprise and the commitment of private capital to investment. There are plenty of jobs for everyone but only provided that the cost of employment is sufficiently low to provide profit to the providers of capital. The reason for the lack of full employment is not the nefarious nature of private capital but the fact that the wage required to fully clear the labour market in such a way that profits are attainable has been deemed, by politicians and the labour unions, as being too low.

    Although cash wages, at the miminum levels prescribed by Government, are not in themselves necessarily too high to clear the market, we have erected a whole host of non-cash costs to employing people – especially as regards the, highly uncertain, cost of being able to terminate employment. With that in mind you should be very wary of conflating Cosatu’s arguments with arguments in favour of the poor. They are in favour of full employment but only at a certain wage – which is inconsistent with acceptable profit and therefore impossible.

    If your real beef is with the very notion of profit and, by implication private capital rather spare us the false context of a budget critique and just say what everyone in the “liberation” movement has forgotten how to say:

    Political power for the masses was supposed to be accompanied by a large and forced transfer of wealth from the haves to the have nots, with future economic activity being conducted by the state.

    This is the underlying agenda for those who still espouse radical views and has the virtue of being internally logically consistent, even if the consequences would be catastrophic.

    Otherwise i suggest some economics courses and an informed debate about the reasonable and viable extent for a socially democratic state in South Africa.

    Happy to engage in open debate on this – if you would like

    PS: You forgot to say Marx

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  13. brandon edmonds says:

    ‘full employment…is inconsistent with acceptable profit and therefore impossible’

    Impossible? Why? Impossible if you think ‘economics courses’ offer the final word on the possibilities of economy and social life. Impossible if you think profit ought to be the way we evaluate and engage human potential.

    Not necessarily ‘conducted by the State’ but ‘free associations working out collective solutions to basic needs democratically’ – a future form as yet unknown – a bit like the space opened up by the popular revolutions we’re seeing. People are taking responsibility back for themselves outside of played out formats of power.

    ‘ridden with basic factual inaccuracies’ – I often mix up Keynesian supply/demand in the heat of composition like I mix up Hutu/Tutsi and yes its dumb and I hang my head in shame. What are the others?

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  14. Porcupine says:

    Writing IS a job. So Edmonds does have a job, and has had for some time. You guys, on the other hand, seem to have wayyyyyyy too much time on your hands…Guess working hours are shorter in NGO world. Or is sitting on your ass launching faceless vitriolic attacks on writers with the balls to put themselves out there considered “work” in your world?

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  15. Shirley says:

    Brandon,

    Is your first line of response deliberate in its misreading of my argument or have you missed the subtlety: full employment IS consistent with acceptable profit and therefore possible IF the price of labour (wages) is not artificially raised above the market clearing level – as is the case in South Africa and most other countries.

    The point on economics courses is not to try to sway you one way or another – you will find many fellow travellers to buoy your ideology on these – but rather to offer you a way of mastering the basic mechanics and improving your rhetoric. Sorry to sound like a granddad but these days, whether left or right, some minimum level of economic formalism is required to contribute meaningfully and be taken seriously. Otherwise it just sounds populist.

    Perhaps “ridden with basic factual inaccuracies’ was an exaggeration, apologies.

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  16. Twocents says:

    Hey Yes Butt, play the ball, not the man. It’s just not good sportsmanship and, crucially, it shows your lack of ability to debate the content without taking a kick at your opponents gonads. Poor form indeed.

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  17. LukeSkyCrawler says:

    Who are all this old people … Was that first photo taken via your cellphone from your tv … Sheeeesh mahala is really budgeting …

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  18. yes but says:

    @twocents – but what if the content is centered squarely around that person’s gonads in the first place? It’s not such a simple man-vs-ball situation in this case.

    Brandon has poured forth his personal circumstances in pieces on this site over the last few years, many of them describing in great detail his discomfort with the working world and the economic realities that confront us. He has also bemoaned the fact that his economic outsidership has excluded him from many of the creature comforts and securities that others enjoy.

    Those of us who have come to know Brandon better through these pieces have become all too aware of his outright rejection of the “status quo” and his dogged assertion that radical socioeconomic revolution is more to his taste and his sensibilities. That is easier to subscribe to if you have already chosen to exclude yourself from society and when you have very little to lose as a result of the consequences. Brandon may well then assert that the majority of South Africans (and world citizens) are in a similar boat and that his road is best for all.

    And this is where I take issue with his tack. He is all too prepared to draw a line between the desirability of an alternative and the imperative of precipitating one at any cost. Most concerning is his total lack of insight and commitment regarding what would replace a current dispensation once he has succeeded in facilitating its destruction. How would he bring about greater social justice without facilitating the social ills that plague any society? How would he stimulate and reward initiative and creativity while still promoting maximum socioeconomic equality? Ask him these questions and you’ll get the “I’m just a writer” or “these things are hard” brush-off.

    When it comes to the digestion of any opinion-piece, context is always important. And in Brandon’s case there is a lot of context that has been established via Mahala over a long period of time. Let’s see if Brandon refutes any of the labels that I have hung on him?

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  19. Andy says:

    Luke I’m a find you and beat you with a stick… just saying

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  20. brandon edmonds says:

    It’s not about me. It takes multitudes.

    Bakunin: “We are convinced that the masses of the people carry in themselves, in their instincts (more or less developed by history), in their daily necessities, and in their conscious or unconscious aspirations, all the elements of the future social organisation.”

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  21. oh jesus says:

    edmonds, that bakunin quote is just laughable optimism. instead of speaking in generalities, speak in particularities. you can theorise about trends etc. in the abstract, but when it comes to reality, i think you’ll find those theories don’t have such a tight fit.

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  22. oh jesus says:

    also, the whole conceit of this article – the freudian slip – is little over-reaching. he was speaking in xhosa. isn’t it possible that rather than a slip, he just didn’t know how to translate properly, or fudged his lines because they are unfamiliar, not his own tongue?

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  23. Only saying.... says:

    You say: “how much of a productive return is the State getting for all this benevolent social spending?” The return they bank on – and have been for the past 20+ years – is the vote of every recipient of their largess. That pie-in-the-sky/sacred cow document The Freedom Charter is just another of the ANC’s list of promises that it neglects to fill out with detail. It also fails to remind said recipients that the so-called ANC benevolence is funded by some very hard-working capitalist types via their taxes. Cosatu uses every opportunity to malign business, but it is in cahoots with a regime that has robbed even it’s favoured citizens of the best means to raise themselves above the muck and the mire i.e. a decent education. Through OBE the ANC has rendered millions of young S Africans unemployable. Coupled with the culture of entitlement and “rights” they have so carefully nurtured, the notion of “working together” is a cynical joke. The ANC seems to have a philosophy of “keep them ignorant, keep the dependent and your vote is assured”.

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  24. Rob says:

    I find that in South Africa, white people generally shun any economic idea left of the American right wing. One might be better concerned looking at why Europe is such a nice place to live – it’s clean, and government looks after you by using dozens of ‘lefty’ ideas that improved people’s lot in life after the catastrophe of the second world war. Many of those countries had comparable populations with economies of comparable sizes, and yet chose to implement national health, unemployment benefit, child benefit, free housing and massive public infrastructure projects, financed while raising wages and taxing corporations. Scandinavia thirty to forty years ago was a rural backwater of fishing economies. Their success today came on a wave of nationalisation and public welfare programs. Today, Scandinavia has the happiest population, the highest standards of health and education, and the lowest gini coefficients. Sure, Norway rode an oil slick to prosperity, but that is an exception.

    And if we want to get really lefty-sycophantic, lets look at Yugoslavia at its zenith. Unaffiliated to great powers, it achieved the highest literacy rates in Europe, 100% employment, and every essential service was free, achieving in a couple of decades something many third-world countries couldn’t dream of, and in a multi-ethnic society. Look at what it is now that the NATO forces’ favourite dictators have finished with it (don’t read anything into this comment, I’m not saying anything about Milosovic) – most people there preferred Yugoslavia to its modern fragmentation, which is quite an achievement, considering what a massive knot of arseholes Tito’s government were. Mind you, when one of your heads of state is a fascist who openly boasted his Nazi SS service, its not surprising. Yes, I know Yugoslavia wasn’t a massive economy, but what is the point of having a nice shiny economy if your people starve (nudge-nudge, SA)?

    In my opinion, pretty much any model where people don’t starve is preferable to one where people do. And the West European model is better than any. So when Zuma goes on about doing less welfare and more ‘developement’, whatever that means to the ANC, I feel angry and dissapointed for the millions of poor people who still vote for a government implementing strategies against their interest.

    And I have seen arguments here talking about profit margins. Who does that benefit? The best way to make profit is depress wages and fire workers. Does that help society? I mean FUCK. Who benefits, seriously? Surely the point should be designing society so that the citizens are healthy, happy, and educated. But depressing wages and removing benefits does not help that goal. And having a rich ruling class and rich corporations does make your economy grow fast, and increases the influence of your government on the world stage. But what the hell does that matter when you are starving?

    Now the standard response from white South Africans is that these unemployed people are just lazy. Yeah, I’m sure they are so very comfortable in that shack off the A1, real plush. I think this boils down to snobbery and racism. If you are born to a broken family with not enough money for a decent school, and even if you got straight A’s, your matric would still bear the mark of a township high school that no employer or university would respect. Yes, some people are lazy. But 20 million people too lazy to care whether they eat tomorrow? Are you serious? Stop behaving like a stingy racist rightwing fuck.

    So, whether Brandon backed up his arguments properly or not does not make him a shit. He is not a writer for the NYTimes. At least he takes a position that cares for the welfare of the majority, whereas anybody with the opposite opinion (in the words of James Madison ‘protecting the minority of the opulent from the poor majority’) without justifying their argument would just be a fascist or a callous arse.

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  25. Anonymous says:

    @Rob
    Fucking bravo!

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