Hopes of grassroots democratic change

Posted on October 9, 2014

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The fact that the “Save Our Metro” campaign in South Africa’s east coast Nelson Mandela Bay area was flagged in an official press notice of the country’s largest union federation is important. It gives the campaign wider credibility, especially among affiliates of the governing alliance of which the Cosatu federation is the numerically largest.

Until last week, it was only the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), the largest Cosatu affiliate that is also at loggerheads with the federation’s executive, that had openly supported the campaign. Numsa put out a notice for the first regional service delivery summit in September.

Although the September notice caused wider interest, Numsa is still regarded by many within Cosatu and the governing ANC as an incorrigible maverick. The Nelson Mandela Bay metro campaign had also been slated in some quarters as a “DA front” because the opposition Democratic Alliance launched a petition last year under the Save Our Metro heading.

Now, with faith-based organisations apparently playing a leading role and Cosatu — along with Numsa — providing support, it is possible to see the campaign as non-sectarian and as an example that could be followed elsewhere. Unless, like other, similar moves, it founders.

But there is clearly a widespread desire, not only in the Eastern Cape, to have done with unaccountability, corruption and mass unemployment. And everywhere there is concern about the state of the health and education systems.

With very evident ideological fissures within both Cosatu and the ANC, it perhaps easier to break ranks on the basis of principle. Especially when the call is not for support of one party over another, but rather for reform of the system.

However, this calls for clearly formulated alternative policies; currently, the demands are usually for incompetent or corrupt individuals to be replaced. But, as many within the unions still argue: it is the positions and the system that corrupt the individual.

And, without clear, alternative policies, little is likely to change. The Arab Spring is a good example of what can happen when the majority of people rise up against corrupt and oppressive rule without any clear idea of what they are for. Much the same could be said about South Africa’s transition: we were against apartheid and, apart from deracialising the state, there was no clarity about an alternative way forward.

But, by 1996, the combined labour movement — Cosatu, what became Fedusa and Nactu — did produce a well-structured alternative economic policy entitled Social Equity and Job Creation. It was based on the idea that redistribution of wealth would lead to economic growth and be to the benefit of all. However, the policies were still to be applied in the same political environment.

These policies are based on the concept of the “virtuous cycle” that was first formulated by one of the fathers of free market economics, Adam Smith. And it was taken up by “enlightened” capitalists such as Henry Ford.

Now Ford was not enlightened in the sense that he supported fair labour laws, but he did qualify in that he paid his workers more than others, even if he hired and fired them at will. His argument was that his better paid workers would spend more money buying products made by other workers who would, in turn, be better off and able to buy his cars.

However, like Adam Smith, Henry Ford never foresaw that the competitive, free market system had an inbuilt, anarchic fault: it led to over-capacity and over-production that then caused economic recession and unemployment. This is what the world is suffering from at the moment, with apparently little chance of overcoming it in the short to medium term.

The rebuilding of large parts of the world after the massive destruction of the second world War resulted in an economic boom. It also encouraged fantastic innovation as companies sought to produce their products more efficiently and cheaply.

The motor vehicle industry is one of the classic examples. Thousands of mainly men, worked in a “line” each doing a specialised job that, at the end of the line, resulted in a finished car.

Today, as auto workers are only too aware, robots have replaced the armies of workers. The same applies in many other areas, while competition has spawned increasingly cut-price factories, allowing companies to outsource production and to move it, sometimes on an annual basis, to ever lower paid workers.

This is a global phenomenon and will have to be treated as such if the world is ever to break out of its boom and bust cycles. However, everything has to start somewhere and the idea of citizens empowering themselves, especially in an age of virtually instant mass communication, holds out the promise of ongoing grassroots democracy, especially if combined with a clear vision of the social and economic system required.

South Africa’s Bill of Rights provides such a vision — and one that the overwhelming majority of citizens would support. Yet we function within an electoral system where, as voters, we sign away our power every five years to party bosses via party lists. Even the Cosatu constitution has a provision — currently being ignored — to allow for the democratic recall of elected leaders.

So the tools of communication exist and the seeds of real democratic change are evident in moves such as Save Our Metro to improve the lot of citizens. The only questions are whether the seeds will germinate and in what way or whether, perhaps after some successes, Save Our Metro will remain simply as a pressure group or fade away.

Posted in: Commentary