Saturday, 17 May 2014

The elections show an unabating demand for change

The 2014 national and provincial elections can reasonably be dubbed an election for change.
Over ten million people came out and voted for the ANC precisely because it argued that it would do better and “redouble” its efforts to ensure a better life for citizens. A smaller but important number voted for the EFF, the newcomer encroaching on the ANC’s turf and which is making waves with its agitational style and radical ideas for South Africa. The DA also did well and showed a gain in black voters – and that is because it has made internal changes and has done more to acknowledge the need for redress.

So although huge numbers voted to return the ANC to power, these people are not voting for continuation of the status quo. Undoubtedly, the mass of voters want more done to overcome poverty and inequality. They believe the ANC when it promises ‘change from within’, so to speak. They want it to lead the change and trust it to take the country to higher levels of achievement.

Going forward – and in addressing the need for sustained change – the ANC should focus on three things. The first is service delivery. Although there has been life-changing delivery to millions of people in the last twenty years, developmental problems are huge and grow if they are not addressed. About 20 million live in poverty and 10 million of those are ultra poor. There are huge flashes of impatience in informal settlements, on the edges of townships, in rural areas and in decaying urban cores.

Sometimes the burning issue is water, at other times it is housing, sanitation, space for informal business, a cry for better hospitals and concern with the costs of higher education. On some of these issues, such as hospitals, the ANC has a good policy and a plan; the expectation from the masses is that the ANC move faster on such issues. In other cases government machinery, for example dysfunctional local government systems, poses a huge obstacle.

The second issue is the matter of clean government. People from all walks of life, whisper or complain about the waste, misuse and plundering of government funds. It is not only people in suburbs. Key leaders within the ANC have also raised the alarm, calling for stronger measures to stem what they see as a rising tide of corrupt practices.

The third critical issue relates to job creation and the economy. Much of what government can do about job creation will follow form effective governance. If government uses its resources well and delivers through a capable state, more investors will be attracted to South Africa and jobs will be created. In addition, the ANC has a few interesting initiatives including the planned campaign to encourage local buying and more focused government support for small business. The ANC can also take ideas and proposals from opposition parties.

Regarding economic transformation, the ANC itself has set big targets around this. At Polokwane and Mangaung, there was talk of “the second phase of the transition” – the need to ensure greater participation of black people in the economy. At one level, the drive is to ensure that more black people should operate at higher levels in the economy. They should have significant influence, for example at shareholder level, senior management level and in major new government–business initiatives linked to industrialisation. At another level, economic freedom means that significantly more black people must begin to benefit from jobs with good wages as well as from employee share ownership schemes. A critical issue here is the need for government to meet and negotiate with big business, captains of industry and other power holders in the economy. Business must share in a vision, a clear plan and some concrete commitments regarding economic transformation. Millions of South Africans would like to see government use the carrot and stick more effectively to change the structures of the economy.

The voting process has the strongest connection with Parliament. Anyone who is keen on following up on the elections (of tracking the work of their representatives) should keep their eye on this body which is charged with making laws and ensuring the executive implements them. Our Parliament(s) should become more vibrant with the entry of EFF and a fresh crop of representatives from ANC, DA and other parties. A major priority for the ANC must be to get a better – more balanced – relationship between Parliament and the executive. Parliament should not just be a conveyer belt for executive thinking and explanations. ANC comrades in parliament should, on behalf of us all, ask their comrades in the executives all the pertinent and tough questions they need to ask about programmes, budgets, setbacks as well as performance against planned results.  

It would be great if this election leads to a renewal of parliament – if this body led the drive for greater accountability.

In recent times, parliament has been upstaged by the courts (in handling of the textbook saga, for example) and the Public Protector. But Parliament can claw back its place as the leading body as far as protecting the interests of all South Africans are concerned. There are enough people within the ANC who are bold, who care and who have strong values to ensure a system of greater accountability. The electorate certainly believes so.

Frank Meintjies
This piece was first published in The New Age on 16 May 2013 under the headline: "ANC must start delivering".

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Support Mathunjwa as he battles anti-strike propaganda and bias

It is time to rally in support of Joseph Mathunjwa, head of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Workers Union (Amcu). He is no angel – such beings are very hard to find in our vexed, messy and conflict-ridden set-up. But Mathunjwa is leading a strike for a legitimate cause. It is actions such as the Amcu strike on the platinum belt that seek to fundamentally change the cheap the labour system that so much of capitalism in South Africa is so hooked on.

The union started off by demanding a monthly basic wage of R12500. The union has – contrary to propaganda – not stuck rigidly to this demand. It has compromised and its revised demand is that the R12500 basic wage be reached in a few years time.

The hard-headed, intransigent and over-confident employers ignored this shift for a long time. In their most recent response, the employers have made an offer which effectively shifts the goalposts – they agree to provide R12500 demand by 2017 - but including all allowances. This is the opposite of good faith negotiations. All along, the wage negotiations focused on the cash component – it is disingenuous to pretend to agree to meet the unions’s demand – but to do so by counting allowances already enjoyed by workers as part of the offer.

The union held a briefing on 5 May 2014 in Johannesburg. It argued that mine bosses have not been open and transparent about what they can afford. They have in fact miscalculated the number of miners, Amcu argued, and downplayed the resources available for employee remuneration. Amcu provided information that showed that mining companies can afford the R12 500 basic salary. “There is money to pay the workers. They can afford it. The amount budgeted for wages can in fact meet the demand,” Mathunjwa said.  

Sadly, some media representatives have joined the bullying tactics used against Amcu. In interviews, they have often been blatantly unfair to Mathunjwa and Amcu. In the presence of the management representatives, they often asked him questions such as: “When will you call off the strike?”, “Are you aware that workers are suffering?” and (in one case) “Are you still earning a salary?”. They also constantly remind Mathunjwa (not management) that the strike has led to losses of R23 billion in revenues and wages. They follow up this type of interrogation with sweetheart questions to the management spokesperson, often encouraging the latter to blame the union and to wax lyrical about the strike’s damage to South Africa.

Some sections of the media are more interested in ending the strike than finding the truth and attaining a just and sustainable outcome.

If one follows this shallow perspective on labour matters on the part of some media representatives, every strike in a major company is “damaging to South Africa”.

Apparently, the furthest thing from the minds of some in the media is the need to end huge income disparities that fuel conflict in our society. Or the need to engage with the reality that increased investment (something a strike-less society is said to ensure) often leads to jobless growth and a widening of the gap between haves and have-nots.

Journalists interviewing representatives of mining companies seldom ask them:

·       Whether wage increases for workers over the last 20 years have merely kept pace with inflation or significantly increased household income and improved workers’ lives?

·       What companies’ long term plans were to increase workers wages and benefits, and to end other evils associated with mining?

·       To what extent employers have actually moved from their initial position in the wage talks?

·       Details about revenue and expected profits.

·       Information about shareholder profits at different points in the last twenty years.

·       To discuss comparisons regarding remuneration for the same or similar mining jobs in other countries such as Australia.

The struggle for a living wage on South Africa’s platinum belt is an important one. How it is settled can take South Africa forward and, in a small way, transform things to ensure that more people share in the country’s mineral wealth. The employers and the unions are engaging each other in a robust manner, and thousands of workers are sacrificing to advance their interests. Other role-players such as the media and government should either back off or step in to ensure, firstly, that “truth” prevails about the realities facing workers and management and, secondly, that a fair fact-based settlement is reached.

Frank Meintjies