21 December 2012

South Africa: The Nascent 'African Spring' in South Africa and Namibia

Moeletsi Mbeki, author and political economist, believes Africa needs more political parties and a more competitive political system if it hopes to ... ( Resource: Moeletsi Mbeki: Africa Needs More Political Parties

FROM a prominent trade unionist, overnight millionaire to an instant 'police commander'.

Questions are being asked as to what role Cyril Ramaphosa, the former trade unionist, and now a millionaire, played in the Marikana killings. Times have changed and so have people. Thus Ramaphosa jettisoned his trade union credentials when he apparently pushed for a crackdown on what he called a 'criminal' strikers.

I'm not privy to the specifics of Ramaphosa's case, which I understand is being investigated by a presidential inquiry. My interest here is with the broader issues confronting workers and the masses generally. The masses are coming to realise that the lines have been drawn between the haves and have-nots. Since the independence of Namibia in 1990 and the end of apartheid in SA in 1994 a handful of black millionaires have sprung up to join an equally small but significant number of white millionaires that control the two countries' economies.

The trick here has been simple. Those blacks with political connections or the politicians themselves have benefited from state resources, such as exploration and mining licences, wholesale and retail goods tenders, fishing quotas, commissions, facilitation fees and kickbacks. One interesting SMS that appeared in The Namibian said that some people are said to be entrepreneurs whereas all they do is to sell EPLs, fishing quotas to foreigners and pocket millions overnight. This was spot on. Mind you these people are actually selling the country's resources to outsiders without much benefit to a substantial number of, especially the ordinary, Namibians.

But people are starting to realise this now. It is against this background and context within which the current strikes and demonstrations must be understood. This is the seed that is beginning to nurture the 'African Spring'. Perhaps unlike in other African countries and more importantly the Arab Spring itself; the two cases here are not about regime change (although this could be an interesting development) but rather about bread and butter issues. More importantly about issues of poverty and inequality which are so prevalent in these two countries. To what is the Marikana strike linked if not to inequality, as Jacob Zuma says?

Thus, people like Ramaphosa can call Lonmin mine's strike - which unfortunately led to the death of miners - 'criminal'. He, and others in his position, must remember that he has benefitted from a public resource to amass his wealth. That is the 'public-resource and private-profit' dilemma that many African governments have failed to address. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from the Norwegians and how they run their oil resource.

The Marikana tragedy helps, albeit painfully, to broadcast that the 'African Spring' might be just around the corner. Marikana has been dramatic and painful but we should also remember that there have been other workers strikes, protests and demonstrations in both SA and Namibia before, which have been suppressed, sometimes harshly. The most recent ones in the Namibian case are the teachers' strikes that almost brought the educational system down to its knees; the nurses' strike and, of course, the pilot strike that caused the loss of some millions to Air Namibia. The demands usually are about salaries increases and better working conditions at the workplace.

The responses from those in power (as could be expected) have always been hostile both here and in SA. One of the tactics used is for the authorities to go to the courts to get the strikes declared illegal. The courts being part of the establishment, would readily grant such request, and then the police will finish off the rest.

The one thing that has come out during these demonstrations and strikes is that people have started to lose faith and trust in their respective unions' leadership. The striking teachers, in Namibia for example, said they were fighting on their own without Nantu and it was the same in the case of Lonmin case where the workers snubbed their union and instead chose their own representatives to negotiate directly with the company. This is a good development in my view.

One thing one keeps hearing in this country is that the strikes are not good for the economy. The usually conservative Namibia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI) said that labour unrest in Namibia is tarnishing the country as a foreign investment destination. So it is all about money for businesspeople and the well-being of the workers don't figure in their calculations. That is why the NCCI daily 'song' is zero tax rates for farmers and enterprises that are apparently in primary food production - they clearly want to have their cake and still eat it.

Thus from the perspective of the NCCI and kindred bodies in SA the foreign investors are put up as the saviours of our economies and the striking workers are seen a hindrance. How the foreign investor is going to run his or her business without a well-paid and well-fed work force, we don't know. To follow on Ellen Meiksins Wood citing EP Thompson, maybe it is time to 'rescue the ordinary people from the enormous condescension of posterity'.

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