Citizens’ coaltion infrastructure is in place

Posted on December 31, 2012


In almost every community there is a school. And most school premises are used, often on Sundays or after hours by various community groups. Here are logical hubs for community activism. Other premises such as church and community halls serve similar purposes. These are the natural gathering places of people in most areas of the country.

In many cases groups of people come together in these places on a regular, weekly, basis to conduct their business, be it to discuss community concerns, to debate political issues or to worship. Members of these gatherings may also be workers who are members of trade unions and, as such, meet regularly — sometimes on a daily basis — to discuss matters of common concern with their fellows.

All of these people are also citizens of South Africa, each with a unique ID number and with rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. However, for the majority of the population, these rights to “human dignity, equality and freedom” remain illusory. And they will continue to be so as long as decisions about the way the country is run are left to the monied and politically powerful minority who make decisions that affect everyone in the country.

Every five years we go, as individuals, ignoring our potential collective power, to the polling booths to put crosses on ballots that give administrative power to a political party. And the party leaderships then hand out positions on the basis of party loyalty, making legislators answerable not to the people, but the party bosses. This is a system based on patronage and inevitably has the seeds of corruption embedded within it.

But, at the same time, the government and other political parties all agree with the Bill of Rights and claim that they would implement rights such as equal education, sufficient food and water, adequate housing and health care “as soon as it is practicable”. It is all a question, they say, of not having enough money or other resources to enable such roll-out of services aimed at achieving the aims of the Bill of Rights.

However, what we have seen over the past 20 years has been more of the same: a huge and growing wage and welfare gap in a country where the geography of apartheid — leafy suburbs and the matchbox houses and shack clutter of “townships” on the outskirts of every city and town. What has changed is that this is no longer a strictly black/white issue; the economic and social spheres have, to some degree, been de-racialised: formal apartheid is dead, but economic apartheid continues.

We should also not forget that, internationally, South Africa is classified as a middle income country. This classification is based on “per capita” income. What this means that if the wealth — the gross domestic products or GDP — generated each year in the country was divided equally among the whole population, every man, woman and child would have roughly R13 000 a month.

But South Africa is also a very unequal society, so, more than half the wealth generated every year goes to the little more than 3 million richest families while the poorest 3 million share just 1.2 per cent of this wealth. What his means in rands and cents is that the richest 3 million share about R210 billion while the poorest 3 million have just R4 billion between them.

South Africa is, in fact, a very rich country in that it has many minerals in the ground that are needed. There is plenty of coal, high quality iron ore, platinum group metals, chrome and titanium. There is also gold that has little practical use, but which tends to be hoarded in many parts of the world as wealth. Most of this mineral wealth is exported in fairly raw form.

At the same time, it is now generally agreed that probably four out of every ten men and women between the ages of 15 and 64 have no work. Yet it is obvious that there is a great deal of work that needs to be done, from building and repairing roads, schools and other community facilities to making bricks and building houses.

Among the unemployed are skilled machinists and other garment workers in an industry that has been all but destroyed by floods of cut-price garments from countries such as China, Vietnam and Turkey. There are also metalworkers who used to make steel products that are now imported from India and China, made from iron ore exported from South Africa.

We also produce, on average, more of our basic food, mielies, than we need. But last year, for example, much of our mielie stock was sold for export and we then had to buy in extra stocks at even higher prices to feed South Africans. This is an example of the madness of the market.

However, we are part of this new “world village”, where capital and production, imports and exports move quite freely. But we, in our “suburb” of South Africa can — and should — make decisions about how we act, what we produce, import or export. And we can do so to the benefit not just of ourselves, but to the majority of working people around the world.

As matters now stand, we are told that we must be more productive and competitive in a world where there already exists surplus production and surplus capacity to produce virtually every socially necessary item. All this does is to pitch workers in one country against workers in others in a manic drive to reduce costs — and therefore wages and conditions — in order to maintain profits for the minority who own and control the means of production distribution and exchange.

The majority who produce the goods and services and who end up suffering as a result of this way of organising society, have no interest in continuing in this way. And, in fact, it is in the interests of all humanity that we do not continue in a way that is destructive not just to people, but to the planet itself as the increasingly desperate attempts to maintain profits results in pollution and environmental damage.

Yet to ask those who own and control the economy, along with the politicians and managers who benefit from this system, to change it is futile. In a quotation attributed to the reformist economist John Maynard Keynes, this amounts to promoting, “the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of us all”.

The people who will work for the benefit of us all are, in fact, all of us, as equals, making decisions after being given all the facts, debating and discussing them. This same system could apply everywhere, on a global basis. But it needs to start somewhere. In South Africa we are in a very good position. Not only because we have a very recent history of collective action, but because we have a Bill of Rights that provides us with the framework for action to provide us with the possibility of maximum freedom for all.

Here we have the potential to bring about a new political dispensation: the introduction for the first time in modern history, of an extended democracy that could be a beacon for people the world over. Just ask a few simple questions: would you, or the people you know, allow people to starve when there is a surplus of food? Would you agree to spending vast amounts of resources on the machines of war while there is a lack of basic services? Would you allow people to die needlessly for want of medicines that are available but which they cannot afford?

There are many questions like this and the answers are wholly predictable. Yet resources continue to be wasted, people continue to starve in the midst of plenty and children die of preventable diseases or suffer a lifetime of disability because of nonexistent or inadequate early childhood education and health care. Human potential is squandered on a massive scale and social dislocation, crime and violence are the result.

Because of this we have calls from all sectors for something to be done, for more police, greater powers for the state, more freedom for the bosses to operate as they please. These are not solutions: they amount to the frantic grasping at straws by a drowning society where those responsible for the crisis continue to grope for solutions that will preserve a system already doomed to create disorder and the suffering of millions.

The solution lies with us, with the people who identify with the majority of humanity, and with the wellbeing of the planet in all its wonderful diversity. Ubuntu — the identity of each with all — is not a purely African concept; it is a universal feeling that has come to the fore on many occasions throughout history. Individual communities in crisis have often shown a quite remarkable ability to unite and work together for the common good. Today we face an economic, social and environmental crisis of major proportions. We face what looks like a stark choice: either a slow, steady slide through greater horror as the present system seeks to stabilise itself or a move toward a democratic dispensation that could make the Bill of Right a reality.

The choice is ours: we have the potential “hubs” where we meet and can discuss and make decisions; we have the Bill of Rights that provides the egalitarian and democratic framework on which most of us can agree; and we have the technology to link these hubs by means of the internet through cell phones and computers. What is needed is organisation and the estabishment of a democratic “switchboard” that can relay information, debates and decisions.

Trade unions could perhaps be the driving force to call together a national discussion among representatives of groups around the country who are interested in this concept of building a citizens’ coalition. At such a gathering, the details of how and when to establish such a coalition and where and how the “switchboard” should operate can be finalised.

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Posted in: Commentary