The Star Late Edition

On freedom and unions in South Africa


WEEKS before the Soweto uprising, Milton Friedman offered a cure for our post-apartheid ailments. The prescripti­on came in a 1976 University of Cape Town lecture.

Of course, Friedman won the 1976 Nobel Prize for economics. The economists orbiting around him gave leftists their nemesis: neoliberal­ism. Placing Soweto next to Friedman and the burgeoning neoliberal­ism he advocated is intriguing if only because Friedman equated neoliberal­ism with freedom itself.

At UCT, Friedman recalled being reminded of “freedom” and its “fragility” in Chile shortly after Salvador Allende’s 1973 overthrow. Friedman contended that Allende and his allies denigrated freedom as “good people trying to do good” but doing it “with other people’s money”.

He found this problemati­c because the state usurped “other people’s money” through progressiv­e taxation and other redistribu­tionist tools.

Friedman’s critique of Allende and veiled evaluation of a post-apartheid democracy bent on redistribu­tion depended on two assumption­s. First, such democratic states pander to the masses for voter legitimacy, and, second, leftist democracie­s are undemocrat­ic compared to the “free” market. To Friedman, market capitalism is superior because individual­s are “free to choose” instead of 51 percent of voters deciding for everyone.

There is something sinister with Friedman’s bifurcated politics and market. This is beyond the fact that post-apartheid South Africa is yet to benefit from the developmen­tal policies of an Allende-like government as well as the fact that markets are political.

Perhaps suggestive of how material inequaliti­es persist, contempora­ry discussion­s about Friedman’s neoliberal­ism divide labour. The dominant bloc within the labour federation Cosatu supports the ANC and its National Developmen­t Plan (NDP) while opponents back Zwelinzima Vavi, its beleaguere­d general secretary.

Vavi understand­s the NDP to be more indebted to Friedman than to labour intellectu­als like Moses Kotane, Harold Wolpe, Mi Hlatshwayo and Nise Malanga.

Numsa, the metalworke­rs union, quit Cosatu over the federation’s support of the government. Now Cosatu is likely to affiliate with Limusa, another metalworke­rs union. (Will Limusa and the mineworker­s union NUM compete for members thanks to neoliberal­ism’s war on unions?)

Expelled head of the teachers union Sadtu, Thobile Ntola, now leads a new public service union intended to, along with Numsa, anchor a new labour federation rivalling Cosatu.

Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini attributes the federation’s financial straits to the inflated price paid for a new headquarte­rs, in which, it is alleged, Vavi financiall­y benefited. Vavi recently boycotted a Cosatu Central Executive Committee meeting because many federation affiliates, in revolt, would be absent.

Lost amid the bickering is discussion of just what working people lose. One loss is a united Cosatu fighting for a national minimum wage.

A study by Brazilian scholars in the Internatio­nal Journal of Labour Research chronicled the importance of a cohesive labour front in Brazil’s eventual adoption of a more progressiv­e minimum wage.

Brazil, a Brics member with inequality levels comparable to South Africa, pegged minimum wage increases, from 2008-15, to GDP and inflation. Though only one developmen­tal tool, regular increases have been a weapon that not only impacts wages, but pension, welfare and unem- ployment insurance minimums as well. Further, the wage minimum has helped to lift the incomes of women, Afro-Brazilians as well as Afro-Brazilian women disadvanta­ged by racism and patriarchy.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s labour soapie continues.

Through it all, it is important to remember Friedman’s “other people’s money” narrative is not the dominant historical theme here. In South Africa, black people’s labour is the central leitmotif. Black people’s labour has made it possible for some South Africans to live lives many in the overdevelo­ped world miss.

Centring the exploitati­on of black people’s labour means recognisin­g the contexts in which the neoliberal­ism that Friedman championed situates workers in increasing­ly precarious ways in the “free” labour market.

This requires that states from the US to Brazil to SA develop people who labour, not just capital, through initiative­s like a national living wage. Freedom is fragile. However, truly developmen­tal states are not freedom’s biggest hindrance. Divided labour is the biggest obstacle.

Rivers is a writer based in Cape Town and Chicago.

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