Knaves, fools and responsibility

Posted on November 19, 2019

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Are they knaves or fools? It’s a legitimate question to ask of any group that pursues policies and actions in th e name of the greater good, when those decisions consistently benefit a small minority at the expense of the majority. Especially when the decision makers are cushioned economically from the harsh consequences of their actions.

Within the labour movement, it’s a question that has been asked many times in recent years as government pursued economic policies that have repeatedly proved disastrous. This, when opposition parties also offer no real alternative, supporting fundamentally the same system that gives rise to crisis, cronyism, corruption and maladministration.

Now, with further layoffs looming at Saldanha Steel and at SA Airways, finance minister Tito Mboweni is calling for R150 billion in public sector cost-cutting over the next three years. This, amid promises of billions in investments and future jobs, has brought the knaves/fools query very much to the fore.

The modern definition of a knave is “a tricky or deceitful person”, effectively unprincipled. In other words someone who deliberately deceives, publicly professing to serve the greater good, knowing that what they do is to the benefit only of themselves, their supporters and backers. A fool, on the other hand, is defined as a person lacking in judgment or prudence, in other words, someone who, without any awareness or realisation of the situation or consequences, simply — and blindly – makes decisions and acts.

Of course, there are knavish fools and foolish knaves, and those who, blinded perhaps by bribery, flattery or even bullying, have become instruments of economic dogma, unthinking believers.

How else is it possible to explain the generalisation by Mboweni that a bloated public sector will have to suffer great pay and job cuts? Especially when, for example, a grossly understaffed health service is short of tens of thousands of poorly paid nurses and social services across the board have outstanding vacancies?

This is only one area of the public sector where there are acute shortages in facilities desperately needed by the vast majority of the population in order to lead safe and decent lives. Yet the public sector is said to be bloated and too expensive.

Trade unionists by and large, would agree that there are areas in the public sector that are bloated, and often staffed by incompetent, overpaid political cronies. Just as there are examples of grotesque payments made to bosses in the private sector. But, as several unions noted publicly this week, it is not they or the workers they represent, who created this situation and the economic mess we are in.

Their arguments were clearly underlined last week in a statement by communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. She announced that there was nothing amiss in the fact that the top executives of the virtually bankrupt SABC are paid a total of R42.5 million a year.

She also justified the payment of R3.9 million, for nine months work, to SABC chief executive, Madoda Mxakwe. This, she added, was “market related” and amounted to Mxakwe’s “total package”, presumably including the various perks such as an expense account, car allowance and medical aid etc.

Perhaps the same market related justification applies to her own pay and to that of her 34 colleagues in one of the world’s most inflated administrations. They each receive a basic income of more than R2.4 million a year or more than R200 000 a month.

And with that hefty pay packet comes a range of expensive benefits, covering everything from free air fares, expense accounts, car allowances and even payment for domestic service. Ministers also get an upmarket free home in either Cape Town or Pretoria. And, because the administrative capital is in the north and the legislative in the south, they have to have a second home, along with two cars at a cost of R1.68 million.

Running costs, maintenance and comprehensive insurance for the cars are covered, but the second upmarket home has to be rented and paid for at a “market related” price. However, “market related” is obviously a flexible term, since, according to the calculations available from government, this is based on a formula that means a minister pays little more than R2 000 a month. This is a country where a nurse, working at a city hospital in Cape Town has to pay R2 800 for a single room over a fish and chip shop to enable her to be close enough to the hospital to be able to walk to work.

Then there are 37 deputy ministers, each with an annual pay packet of little less than R2 million and the full range of perks that, arguably, amount to another 50% of income. Similar calculations apply at different levels to the 90 members of the National Council of Provinces and the nine provincial legislatures.

None of this, along with the appointment of incompetent cronies, the apparent refusal to crack down on corruption while encouraging the accumulation of obscene wealth by an elite minority, is the responsibility of workers or their unions. So, understandably, they do not see why they should suffer.

But, as they fight back against having to bear the brunt of a crisis brought about by the system and those who manage and profit from it, they will again be castigated as greedy, selfish and unpatriotic. Yet a look at the facts reveals that, for all their faults, the unions are battling to protect the many from the increasing predations of the few.