Declarations of war & pie in the sky

Posted on February 28, 2020


More than a century ago, the great labour movement balladeer, Joe Hill, wrote and sang about politicians promising “pie in the sky, by and by”. And he also sang that street corner preachers promised that the pie would also arrive, but only “when you die”.

In the meantime, working people were advised to keep their heads down, work hard, be honest and grateful. The assurance was that such dutiful behaviour would, ultimately, be rewarded.

Tito Mboweni’s latest Budget seems to fit squarely into this pie in the sky scenario. Speaking for a deeply indebted government that is borrowing still more at higher interest rates to pay back interest on earlier borrowings, he promises a glowing, prosperous future.

He also presented the country with a classic example of poor government budgeting: having agreed a three-year wage deal with the public sector unions it is suddenly discovered, right and the end, that there is no money to meet the final commitment. This is, perhaps, not surprising since, by Mboweni’s own admission, the government seems to operate on the peculiar basis of making decisions to buy and spend before seeking — often frantically — for the money.

Only the tiny minority at the top of the financial pile seem not to have questioned this fiscal imprudence or the impact on the poor; its members have generally welcomed the 2020 Budget. As well they might. These are representatives of families who have private health insurance, send their children to often extremely expensive private schools and have company cars that are written off against tax.

Also not surprising is the trade union response. Even the government’s labour movement ally, Cosatu, has deemed the Budget proposals “a declaration of war”.

Such fighting talk was inevitable since, in his desperate search for revenue, Mboweni’s solution includes cuts in health, education and transport spending. These will pile on more misery for the poorest of the poor.

The hike in the fuel levy will affect the lowest paid, whether employed, under-employed or desperately seeking work: the fares in the taxis most workers of all categories use will rise. But the pledge of no increase in taxes for wage earners was clearly aimed at winning support from the group generally referred to as the middle class.

This social category is presented as comprising South African individuals and families aspiring to higher status and enjoying fairly comfortable lifestyles, but they also suffer under the burden of growing debt. Many commentators and the mainstream media also inform us that the majority of this class is made up of relatively new entrants from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.

Into this comes the narrative about “Black Tax” and the role this plays in effectively impoverishing members of this group in relation to their peers in the formerly privileged — “white “ — segment of society. It is implied that the officially formerly privileged grouping does not, by and large, have the same obligations to family and kin.

This tax argument is, of course, a factor rooted in history and culture, but the analysis is flawed. It is another example of the myth that the post-apartheid dispensation has elevated substantial numbers of the previously most oppressed and exploited to a level above that of the working class.

It is an argument that has worked to the benefit of various elites, both here and around the world, for certainly more than a century. It implies that the interests of this “middle class” (also in some quarters once referred to as a “labour aristocracy”) lie more with the establishment and the elites than with the working class from which they come.

This is crudely, but accurately, summed up in cynical British lyrics sung to the tune of the labour anthem, The Red Flag: “The working class can kiss my arse/ I’ve got the foreman’s job at last”.

The foreman is given slightly more pay and greater status in order, generally, to ensure greater productivity from fellow workers. Still a wage slave, the foreman is encouraged to think that he or she is now part of the ruling establishment, sharing the interests of the elite rather than that of the majority.

It is a fiction. But those who promote it admit, in doing so, that we live in a class structured society. So what is “middle class”? I have, consistently in this column, maintained that the definition of a worker is anyone who sells their labour in order to survive; the implication being that this labour is sold to the profit of the hirer. In other words: the rate paid to the worker is only a portion of the value of the work done.

This applies very much to the growing legions in the gig or “self employed” sector, be they motor cycle couriers, journalists or hair dressers. In almost all cases these are people who rely on contracts or casual work from employers who pay less for their labour than their employers benefit from it.

Given this reality, it seem nonsensical that “middle class” tends still to be defined as any family with an income exceeding R20 000 a month. After all, there are skilled workers, members of trade unions and proudly claiming their working class credentials, who earn more than R20 000 a month.

But while a slightly higher income does make for a more comfortable — more “decent” — lifestyle, it does not objectively remove most individuals from the ranks of the working class: income alone is no determinant of class position, either objectively or subjectively. And there is nothing like retrenchment notices to remind any “foremen”, however much they may have deluded themselves (subjectively), of their (objective) class position.

And these generally better educated and skilled workers can become very angry indeed when they realise they have been conned.