SA protests: governance is the real issue

Posted on October 16, 2016


Several trade unions and many protesting Fees Must Fall students in South Africa directed their anger at the wrong targets over the past week. The unions demanded decent work from the private sector; the students, free education from university administrations.

But the private sector is not in the business of creating jobs or providing decent work. And university administrations do not have it in their power to provide fee free education, something several student leaders have now, perhaps belatedly, acknowledged.

“White monopoly capital” a term bandied about by both protesting groups is also misguided. The only colour capital cares about is the colour of money.

So it is against the interests of the private sector to create more jobs than are absolutely necessary for each enterprise. It is also not in the interests of this sector to fund unprofitable ventures such as essential public services.

Maximising profit is the goal of business in a competitive world, and the private sector therefore tries to pay the lowest wages it can get away with, especially in the current cut-throat economic environment. This is the nature of the system in which we live and function, a system managed and regulated by government.

For their part, university administrations have little control over the imposition or level of fees. Most academics and vice chancellors support the idea of free and quality education, but they rely on government subsidies to function and survive. Yet government’s contribution to tertiary education has steadily declined in recent years.

It has also done little to provide the vital — and long promised — free and equitable education from early years to adult literacy. Policies to implement these promises fell by the wayside even before what trade union federation, Cosatu, and the SA Communist Party refer to as the “1996 class project”.

It was then that the government — to which both the SACP and Cosatu are allied — embarked on policies that benefitted business to the disadvantage of social services and to the detriment of labour. Since the sellers of labour are far and away the largest segment of society, this pandering to a minority is fundamentally undemocratic.

Yet the South African government, like most others around the world, has simply pursued policies that have seen the tiny minority of the super rich grow richer while more and more working people have become unemployed. And joblessness also affects university graduates as the pace of automation picks up and the global crisis continues.

These facts are starting to come to the fore as the students and the labour movement underline the fact that the majority of people are not satisfied with the state of governance. Nor should they be.

This is a world where there still exists a surplus of food while millions go hungry; a world where children especially, die in their thousands each week from preventable diseases; where the natural environment is poisoned in the name of minority profit.

This is not what “the people” — the overwhelming majority of humanity — want or need. But “the people” have no say because parliamentary democracies are a far cry from the ideal of rule by the people for the people. In fact, the partial — even farcical — democracy South Africa employs is actually a recipe for patronage, nepotism and other forms of corruption.

At the level of national politics, the country operates on a party list system, voters have no control over who their parliamentary representatives are; tha is the prerogative of the party and its leaders. Yet thes are the people who make the rules that govern the daily lives of the voters. So power lies with the party and, within the party, with its executive and, ultimately, with the leader.

Because election campaigns cost money, political parties rely on funding, which comes largely — and secretly — from the private sector. So, every five years, voters troop off to ballot boxes effectively to hand over the power they collectively have, to a party and its bosses who may already be deeply indebted to the funders.

This situation is not unique to South Africa, but the list system and secret funding make state capture here so much easier. It can take little more than having to buy number one on the winning party list to ensure sweet deals and the compliance of MPs who owe their parliamentary seats and ministerial posts to the boss.

Here lies the fundamental problem that the recent protests are, hopefully, starting to bring to the fore: the question of democratic governance. Unless this is dealt with, the rot in the body politic will remain.