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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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