Fair trade is even more urgent now
In the current political and economic turmoil, protesting trade unions, as well as community, political and religious groups, have all tended to focus on one man: President Jacob Zuma.
At the same time, most seem to acknowledge that Zuma is only the symptom of a much deeper malaise.
Perhaps because of the media focus, the main underlying concern seems to be the economy and what “junk” status may mean for South Africa.
But, as many in the labour movement are concerned, most citizens have been operating with that status for years.
“We are treated as junk,” is a common comment.
In the immediate term, of course, the “bigger picture” decision by the ratings agencies — which have political agendas to preserve to strengthen the existing system — will not have a direct effect on most citizens.
However, as interest rates rise and government revenues are squeezed, the pain will be felt and it will be the poor who will suffer most.
This will be a continuation of the pain that most South Africans have suffered for years; pain at a greater level than necessary, even under the current system and in this time of global economic crisis.
Since 1996, when tariff barriers were collapsed at a level even the World Trade Organisation did not demand, a flood of cheap products – initially, mainly garments and footwear – poured in from countries such as China, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam. And jobs disappeared.
At that time, the trade union movement spoke with one voice, demanding that South Africa should trade only with those countries which provided the same wage rates and labour rights that applied here.
This was an inherently reasonable call for fair trade which also provided solidarity to workers in other regions and countries.
But no one in government was listening. And with the major labour federation, Cosatu, affiliated to, and dominated by, the ANC government, such ethical demands soon fell by the wayside.
However, over the past 20 years, these issues continued to be raised in one form or other. The proposals put forward by the labour movement have amounted only to calling for the fair trade that the liberal “free market” system supposedly supports.
The most recent case, news of which was buried by the “Zuma must go” furore, concerned the dumping of (sometimes rotten) chicken portions from Brazil. But the question of poultry imports has been ongoing for years.
Unions and producers have pointed out that wages – and costs generally – in the US, for example, are much higher than in South Africa. Yet poultry from the US, after being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, can be sold more cheaply than the local product.
Various forms of subsidy play a part in such transactions, and while they keep the tills of wholesalers and retailers in South Africa jingling, they also destroy local jobs and industry.
But so, too, do products produced by virtual slave labour. Yet, it is against such competition that workers in South Africa are told they must compete; that they are simply too expensive.
Here, in the “smaller picture”, lie many of the elements of the real problems we all face.