What The Unemployment Crisis In SA Really Means To Those On The Ground

Just about every writer this year who dealt with the deepening economic and unemployment crisis in SA has failed to place it in a historical context and as a result cannot see what solutions to it are required and what the prospects are of finding it.

The central problem is that while they might appear erudite they not only do not understand how South African capitalism developed after the 19th century mineral revolution under British colonialism and how that not only irrevocably reshaped everything in this country, but that, therefore, despite the political transition of the 1990s, we are basically still living with all the major structural features of those events.

In other words, the unprecedented economic and unemployment crisis in SA today is rooted in that same colonialist legacy.

That is precisely why liberalism is in a crisis in SA, of which the racial fracas in the DA is a symptom. So intertwined was the nexus of race and class that liberalism cannot secure basic social justice within the framework of the existing system of capitalism, a quandary the ruling party is also caught up in.

To seek to do so is to run up against the historical boundaries of that system. That is why liberal discourses avoid dealing pointedly with the political economy of race or what the left outside the ANC called “racial capitalism” under apartheid.

The biggest analytical, ideological and political mistake of all shades of liberalism is to attempt to separate race from class, which I argue is completely impossible to do, not only under apartheid but especially after the 1994 democratic breakthrough.

In fact, right there lie the real roots of the ever-deepening current socioeconomic crisis and its overwhelmingly black face, aside from the impact of global factors.

As a result, as the economic crisis deepens, the race-class nexus is going to become even stronger and bigger than it already is now. That is the extended logic of the virtually symbiotic race-class relationship in which was baptised South African capitalism and all its violence.

Those intertwining threads will not be easily disentangled because for well over a century they have cohered. Right there too lies the roots of the persistence of countless incidences of race in purportedly “post-apartheid” South Africa.

Precisely because race remains of paramount importance, we are in fact reliving our history these days, but only because the nature of the 1990s transition was political and juridical and therefore left intact all the larger historically embedded structural features of the economy, such as a black low-wage regime, poor living conditions and low standards of living, which also serve as constant reminders of the numerous brutalities of this system since the 19th century.

On the other hand, in the townships all the structural and spatial features of apartheid remain intact.

Within that spatial legacy the material and social conditions of the black majority have not only remained the same after the 1994 political breakthrough, but in several respects conditions in the townships have considerably worsened compared to the apartheid times.

This is especially evident with the lack of basic services, such as access to sufficient water and electricity, flush sanitation and decent housing.

The regular sewage leaks onto roads in townships and the dangers it poses to community health has been one of the most disturbing features of the race-class links under neoliberal budgetary constraints.

There can also be no doubt too that the incompetence and rampant corruption of “cadres” the ANC deployed has been an indisputable factor in the decline and degradation of basic services in black townships.

It is with blacks who have moved into the formerly white suburbia that we have had a loosening of those formative race-class links in favour of the black middle class who have benefited to some extent.

But the gravity of the economic crisis has thrown many of those people back into the townships, especially as retrenchments and the subsequent loss of homes and cars spiralled over the past five years.

The race-class connection has affected processes of class formation and disaggregation in both the later apartheid and post-apartheid periods.

But it is not race per se which drives the latter to return to the townships and fall back into the ranks of the working class.

It is instead the workings of a capitalist economy which sheds labour when profits are under threat or have been eroded.

It’s just that because of the social consequences of the apartheid period the black middle class is far more financially vulnerable than the much more established, resourceful and resilient white middle class has been due to the many-sided protections apartheid afforded them, the material legacy of which they largely still enjoy.

But most columnists who write about our worsening unemployment crisis are unable to break free from an essentially neoliberal macroeconomic framework in which their analyses are located.

Let me use the official unemployment rate of 29.1% as an example to demonstrate this point. If unemployment is a permanent structural consequence of capitalist social relations – which it undeniably is – how can the jobless crisis be addressed without addressing capitalism?

Daily we hear of companies retrenching workers, even in the midst of a deep economic crisis, with hardly any prospect of them finding jobs again soon.

This private enterprise system allows companies to retrench workers when the owners find it necessary, which often happens not because profits are not being made but because it is not high enough for them, in which case jobs are shed, no matter at what cost to the affected workers and their families.

It is the human devastation that these statistics leaves in its wake which we don’t fully grasp and appreciate.

But who questions, criticises and condemns companies which daily shed jobs under such spurious circumstances? Instead the right to retrench is taken for granted in this economy.

No employer needs to appear in court to defend and justify retrenchments. Actions which have profound social consequences, like retrenchments, are made by private companies, even when, like the face of poverty, that of joblessness is overwhelmingly black.

Of what worth is an economy which throws workers onto the streets and denies them the right to work, especially when without it the very means to life and survival under this system, wages, is lost with the jobs? But this is capitalism in action, destroying even the right to sell one’s labour, even though for often a pittance.

*Harvey is a political writer and commentator.


Written by How South Africa

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