The almost meaningless display of verbal pyrotechnics that annually accompanies South Africa’s secondary school matriculation results is thankfully behind us. But the reality of a potential 700 000-plus school leaving job seekers is most definitely not. Along with double that number who dropped out before Grade 12, they highlight the most volatile element in the country.
It matters not that a minority may move to tertiary studies, and others may repeat their matric year. All are young, many angry, with few having any hope of jobs and often having little prospect of rising beyond rural penury or the squalid shacklands of urban settlements.
Together, this student cohort constitutes an additional charge to an already ticking time bomb of discontent; perhaps the biggest immediate threat to instability that faces South Africa as we enter fully into 2017.
At least, as this year dawned, there were more than those few voices on the margins who regularly point out what a farce is this fetish about matric that tends to obscure briefly the reality of poor schooling and jobless futures. This is especially pertinent in a country that has not dealt seriously with early childhood education, let alone adult basic education and training, core demands in both the Freedom Charter and the Bill of Rights.
The simple fact of the influx of a new mass of school leavers into an already saturated job market is enough to illustrate the difficulties in the way ahead. But there are many more, not the least of which is the ongoing economic crisis that has given rise to a degree of political instability globally that is probably unparalleled.
However, amid all the doom and gloom, peppered with the usually facile comments by politicians and economists about “turning the corner”, there are many examples of bravery, heroism, compassion, dedication and solidarity, actions that keep the flame of hope burning. Around the world, working people, organised and unorganised, have suffered greater insecurity, wage stagnation and rising unemployment for more than a decade. Yet many remain remarkably resilient.
It is some of these cases I hope to illustrate over the coming year as examples of how, despite often tremendous odds, working people have dealt with adversity and exploitation. Many of these cases never make the news, let alone the headlines, but they are inspiring, although sometimes gut-wrenchingly sad.
Take the case of the Bangladeshi garment workers whose plight was highlighted by the disastrous fire at the Rana Plaza plant in 2013 that saw more than 1 000 workers burned to death. That resulted in a massive international outcry and the workers in Bagladesh rallied. In solidarity with international trade union groupings, they won major concessions.
But then the media attention died down, the economic crunch continued and once again, the same poor conditions and brutal, low-wage exploitation set in. Yet thousands of workers have not been cowed. Although there have been sackings, beatings and jailings, a fight back continues for a wage equivalent of just R1 400 a month.
But in terms of tenacity and the example of solidarity in action, we have to look no further than Gauteng where a group of former Midrand municipal workers have been fighting for their rights to jobs and pensions for 22 years.
This case came to my attention as 2016 drew to an end. Most of the survivors — 55 have died over the years — meet every Sunday to pool their resources and to plan what to do next.
In a peculiar twist to this tale of tenacity and solidarity, the head of the financial services company handling municipal employee pension funds is the same man who was the human resources and labour relations manager at Midrand when the workers were dismissed. Kamani Ernest Letjane, founded Akani Retirement Fund Administrators in 2000. He is also the chairman of the new, R250 million, Ekurhuleni International Convention Centre and hotel complex.
Last month, the workers delivered a memorandum of their demands to Akani and lodged an appeal with Johannesburg mayor, Herman Mashaba. According to an impressive timeline they have produced, former mayor Amos Masondo agreed that their case had merit, but his successor, Parks Tau, reversed this decision.
The timeline, along with documentary evidence, makes for a compelling argument. This includes the workers having lost in court when their case was dismissed when it transpired that that their legal representative was not the lawyer he claimed to be.
Because this case arrived over the holiday period, it was not possible to get responses from all the parties involved. Such responses — or at least the opportunity to respond — are necessary to provide an honest telling of a potentially heroic and yet tragic tale. If and when the emailed queries from Inside Labour are responded to, this important story will be finally and fully told.