Prospects for a new social compact

Posted on June 28, 2020


(Text first published in City Press, South Africa, June 28, 2020)

The Covid-19 jobs slaughter figures for the second quarter of the year are still to come — and they are almost certain to be more frightening than anything we have seen so far.  According to some estimates, the second, Covid, quarter will send the official unemployment rate from 30.1% to 50%.

And this is likely to trigger even more frantic calls for unity, for “the country” — defined as government, business, labour and the community at large — to join a grand social compact.  We’re all in this together is the continually repeated cry.

We are certainly all in the mess together, but by no means on an equal basis.  And the call for unity emanates mostly from a political and business elite cushioned from the harshest effects of an ongoing crisis.

This crisis has been growing since 2008 and was getting steadily worse, before it was exacerbated by the pandemic.  So the call for a social compact amounts to a demand that the poor continue their disproportionate suffering in order to help repair the system that caused the suffering in the first place.

Organised labour and the wider, working class community should not fall for this.  Especially when it is obvious that, even in the midst of increasing mass hunger and the shocking waste of human potential, a number of the rich have become still richer.

So, perhaps the time has come for moves toward a radical restructuring of how policies are made and how we are governed;  to begin to make a reality of that leading slogan of the anti-apartheid struggle:  Power to the People.  That should not mean more of the same, however it is dressed up.  

This applies in particular to the electoral system.  A Constitutional Court decision earlier this month compelled the government to amend this system — 16 years after it was supposed to be changed.  

The decision was hailed in some quarters as a breakthrough for greater democracy.  It was not.  If simply adopted, it could mean opening the way to individuals buying their seats in parliament.

But, whatever the ultimate decision about an electoral system, some change has to be made.  However, unless there is a transformation in terms of greater transparency and accountability, this will amount, at best, to merely more of the same.

And the same is what the country definitely does not need.  On the transparency front there should be full disclosure of all political funding with perhaps a cap put on amounts that may be spent in any election and by any candidate.  

This level of transparency may be achievable even with the present parties in parliaments.  Accountability will be much more difficult, especially if voters demand the right to recall — to sack — elected representatives who do not meet their standards.

This should be a central demand in any march toward peoples’ power.  And since none of the existing parties would countenance such a demand, perhaps it is up to communities and organised labour to establish a coalition where candidates are hired — and may be fired — by their constituents.

With municipal elections scheduled for next year, this could provide an ideal trial for such extended democracy.  But, if the labour movement were to play a part, it might also mean the unions finally facing up to their repeated call to go “back to basics”.

Because such basics were very democratic:  all elected officials were subject to recall and were paid no more than the highest paid union members.  This was peoples’ power at a union level.  Perhaps it needs to be rediscovered and extended to local government and even beyond?

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