Time to confront 21st Century realities

Posted on February 25, 2018


We are constantly reminded that today we live in a world village of the 21st Century. Yet, at the same time, politicians often seem oblivious of the fact. Apart from making the occasional generalised nod in the direction of productive surpluses and the ongoing digital revolution, their thought processes appear grounded in a world four or more decades ago.

And the reactive and fundamentally nationalist posture of most trade unions and their federations puts them in the same category. Their battles on wages, benefits and jobs all too often take little, if any, cognisance of the new era we have entered.

The world of decades ago was a time of generally higher employment when demand for most goods and services still outstripped supply; a world in which more jobs in services opened up as the pace of automation increased, shedding jobs in manufacturing, mining and quarrying. That world no longer exists.

Here then is the problem that confronts South Africa’s new president, Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa, and whatever new administration he puts in place or whatever budgetary measures are adopted. The various targets outlined in Ramaphosa’s recent State of the Nation address (Sona) require policies that must be implemented if they are to be meaningful.

At least these will be debated should Ramaphosa’s promised jobs and investment “summits” go ahead, with the widest possible inputs. Because to even partially fulfill the hopes raised by the Sona address will require not only some radical thinking, but innovative action. At one level, this could amount to what Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has referred to as “protecting capitalism from the capitalists”.

Stiglitz used the expression when describing his view of the impact of the post Great Depression policies that flowed from the interventionist ideas of the reformist economist, John Maynard Keynes. In the Keynesian model, government intervention restrained the rampant greed and profiteering demanded by an unfettered free market system.  This endeavoured to create “capitalism with a human face”.

Keynes is also credited — perhaps out of context — with noting that there exists the “extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of us all”. Not that Keynes may have seen all free marketeers as inherently nasty; merely that an unfettered system forced them behave in such a way in order not only to thrive, but to survive.

And the main check on their excesses was — and remains — organised labour, the trade unions. But the terrain on which they now operate has radically changed and the wages and conditions demands of yesteryear may no longer be appropriate.

But that does not mean accepting the “social compact” mentioned by Ramaphosa. Not if that is taken to mean removing from the unions their sole source of power: the withholding of labour — the strike. Of course, the country, along with much of the world, faces extreme difficulties at present. But the responsibility for these does not lie with workers, organised or un organised, employed or unemployed.

Governments that have continued to put in place policies that favour the rich becoming richer at the expense of the poor or that promote a kleptocracy in support of a political and business elite bear a great deal of responsibility. This because they remain captive to a free market ideology that was, from the start, deeply flawed, seeing some metaphysical “invisible hand” controlling economies to the benefit of all.

The problems faced in South Africa are immense, especially given what several unions have called the “rot” and deadwood” that remains within the administration. These can be excised and, given political will and with available resources, most current problems can, with difficulty and considerable time, be alleviated if not overcome.

Take for example, the health sector. The foot soldiers — the essential core — are nurses, especially if the sort of primary health care so often talked in South Africa about is to be implemented. But what is the situation today? According to the major nurses’ union, the Democratic Nurses Organisation (Denosa) South Africa is now short of at least 80 000 nursing staff.

It is impossible accurately to quantify, but most estimates put the number of South African nurses working abroad at more than 30 000, many in the Gulf states and Britain. Most seem to have left because of poor pay and working conditions.

Following protests from developing countries (including South Africa) the British health department in 2001 adopted an “ethical recruitment programme” that restricted recruitment o health professionals from “developing” countries. But, from the start, this was often ignored.

Now, in our world village, we can expect that there will be much more pressure to “poach” nursing staff in particular. In Britain, for example, colleges have this year had a marked drop-off in students applying to train as nurses.

This can be explained by the fact that, until this academic year, trainee health professionals in Britain paid no tuition fees. All students are now required to pay £9 250 (R150 000) a year.

This has triggered the start of a “fees must fall” movement in British universities and training colleges, but it also means even more of a shortage of locally trained nurses. It’s just one of the problems, but it highlights the nature of the global village and the international impact of decisions in one country on others.

Against this background, South Africa has a lot of analysis, thinking, planning and implementation to carry out if there is even a start to be made on the government’s promised National Health scheme, let alone the proclaimed “better life for all”.