Defend South Africa’s Social Wage


CONTESTATION over scarce resources, unequal wealth distribution and uneven access to capital, have culminated in the creation of two currents within South Africa’s left.

First, there are those who recognise the contribution made by the ruling African National Congress, towards creating a social wage —  comprising “education, health services, social development, public transport, housing and local amenities”.

The social wage as it is currently conceived in its limited form, includes support to “vulnerable households through the old age grant, the child support grant and other social assistance grants”, as well as a “contributory social security”, which includes “unemployment insurance, injury compensation and death or disability benefits”.

This social wage, limited in scope, largely because of the constraints of the fiscus, goes hand-in-hand with the economic wage earned via labour and work. According to Chapter 6 of the National Development Plan,”alongside the “economic wage” earned through work, the “social wage” provided by government represents a steadily rising contribution to improved living conditions of working people and their families.”

Those who ally themselves with the concept of a developmental state, see the expansion of the social wage — in the form of free education, free health care and an extension of the grant system — as the correct course of action. An expanded social wage programme includes citizens of voting age as well as the working population, culminating in an unconditional basic income grant.  In other words, a monthly stipend paid over to every citizen irrespective of employment status. Activism thus drives a developmental agenda, which recognises the role played by the marketplace in funding the social wage and allied programmes, in a system in which citizens are free to earn an economic wage — a wage which can only exist if it is supported via market friendly policies.

Second, there are those who reject any advances made by the ruling party. They focus solely on the economic wage, and the problems presented by unemployment and joblessness. For such persons, the gains of the past 20 years are nought, and according to these people, any successes by the ANC-lead administration have long ago been cancelled out, or are viewed without consequence, as having achieved very little — and thus only minor victories. In the same way South Africa’s founder, Nelson Mandela is viewed by his critics, even after death, as a figure of little historical import. Instead so far as this current amongst the left is concerned, Chris Hani is the last national hero of any note, and only those articulating the kind of populist rhetoric consistent with his communist ideology, should be given any space to breathe.

These persons, invariably reject the status quo and the ‘social versus economic wage’ debate of today, (alongside a rejection of multi-party democracy) in favour of a dictatorship in which a revolutionary vanguard or a political elite, seizes control of the state on behalf of the workers (proletariat), to build a socialist (communist) future. Thus a trend towards a Soviet Republic of South Africa (or Azania), is slowly fomented, with its logical result — the bleak situation experienced under Erich Honecker’s East Germany, and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

In this revolutionary situation, the ruling party (aided by a diminished or non-existent opposition) turns into the sole nexus of all business activity, as authoritarianism rules, the public sector wage-bill bulges, and statism (parastatalism) and regulation of the market become the order of the day. Instead of business leaders and civil society partnerships, party commissars and political culture is placed at the fore. The communists are put in charge, as business itself, is pummelled and reduced into subservience, with the eventual adoption of a 51% then a 61% and eventually 80% – 100% state shareholding, which ignores the previous state’s developmental agenda, and the very rationale behind an economic wage.

In this way, the developmental state is over-run by the so-called “revolutionary state”, as both the social wage and economic wage, are bundled into one entity, call it materialism.

While the former group, let’s call them social democrats, appear to acknowledge neo-liberalism and the marketplace, as a necessary (if bothersome) component of any functioning economy, the latter “revolutionists” and “Marxists” reject any collaboration with a neo-liberal market as a “sell-out” of the socialist and communist ideal, a betrayal of the revolutionary fundamentalist platform.

Though the former vision is consistent with the ideal of a social democracy in which citizens are protected from the worst ravages of the market, by a nurturing state, which in turn supplies social security in an efficient and market-driven manner, and in which wealth distribution occurs via taxation and other means — and often via regulation or intervention in the market, but notwithstanding the economic wage and its requirement of jobs and labour —  the latter see the capture of the state via the polls (even via a civil war if necessary), as a revolution to be rolled out full-scale and post haste, in order to secure the coming dictatorship.

This alongside a general mobilisation of citizens, which may be conceived as an “esprit de corps” of the “fighting working class” and in an uprising consistent with the previous revolutionary period in our nation’s history. One which had its genesis in 1976 and culmination in the late 1980s defiance campaign. A revolution built out of student protest, worker revolt, and the disgruntled unemployed, and still to be constructed upon a re-ignited revolutionary platform or agenda, in which the gains of the past 20 years will be simply jettisoned or wiped off the map, as materialism wins the day.

The above two currents are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In many respects, they overlap, but the question arises of which movement in South African politics will win the day. In a beleaguered political system, hamstrung by controversy and social unrest, one must ask uncomfortable questions — how do we change our government without destroying the country? How do we move forward as a country without dumping the social wage and its promise of a future in which all citizens are not merely equal, but are also able to enjoy the fruit of their labour — an economic wage which forms part of the collective wealth of the nation?

In order for renewal to occur in South Africa, to have change without bloodshed, for peaceful transformation to happen at the polls, and without a total loss of the developmental state and its problem children, the social wage and the economic wage, any opposition movement would need to persuade members of the first group to form a coalition or unity government. Perhaps a revolution under new leadership, coalescing around leaders that are fit to rule, and from within a political movement that places South Africa’s needs first.

Unless this renewal happens, the ruling party, call it what you will, will inevitably lose power, either gradually, or quite suddenly, as the revolutionists and fighters in our society, succeed in engineering a revolutionary capture of the state, by any means necessary. Whichever the case, the preservation and expansion of the social wage and our social democracy must be seen as paramount.

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