We risk another 1976 uprising - Zwelinzima Vavi

COSATU GS on racial inequality and what should, and shouldn't, be done about it

Input to "Critical Conversations on Prospects for a non-racial future in South Africa", by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Sci Bono, Newtown, 26 May 2011

Thank you for inviting me to take part in this discussion on one of the most important questions we face as a country - how can we turn the statement in the Freedom Charter - that "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white" - a reality?

The challenge of building a non-racial and non-sexist but prosperous future for all has been brought to the fore by the recent local government elections. I have listened to many analysts talking about the two-party system and condemning the fact that most South Africans are still voting on racial lines.

Broadly the ANC relies mainly on the black majority to retain power and the DA mainly on the whites and increasingly from other minorities as well. The question is: why this is the case? Well to me the answer is obvious and the challenge of building non-racialism and a more equitable society lies in that obvious answer.

Firstly, the Freedom Charter was a remarkable commitment by a majority, who suffered from the most barbaric and brutal oppression by a racist minority, to nevertheless commit themselves to share the land, the mineral wealth and the economy with the very people who were oppressing them, and live together in peace and harmony.

I am a child of an ex-mineworker who became a farm worker. My mother was a kitchen girl. Personally I am a victim of child labour practices and I was denied education. I don't even know when I was born. That history of humiliation is not something I read about in newspapers and history books.

Building a nonracial democracy, despite these personal experiences, is a commitment honoured by the real Congress of the People and our leadership. The ANC, under the collective leadership and of our international icon President Nelson Mandela, took a deliberate decision to reject the Nuremburg Trial route in favour of reconciliation between the oppressors and the oppressed.

Seventeen years after the 1994 breakthrough we need to assess how far we have progressed. The one massive problem remains that while we have achieved much on the political front, we have failed to make any real progress in reconciling the economic inequalities and injustices which we inherited from the colonial and apartheid era.

Reconciliation was surely never intended to mean that the poor majority had to reconcile themselves with inherited poverty, mass unemployment and inequality, yet that is the reality they face today. Inequalities have become worse even than under apartheid. The statistics are frightening.

The unemployment rate among whites is 5.5%, among Indians 7.9%, among Coloureds 21.3% and among Africans 28.1%. A 2002 study by two academics found that being a young African reduces the odds of being employed by 90%, in comparison to being white. Despite similar qualifications, whites are on average 30% more likely to be employed than Africans. 68% of the increase in unemployment among Africans between 1995 and 2003 could be explained purely by race.

Control of the economy and economic opportunities still reflect our history. 45% of all top management promotions went to white males and 17% went to white females (which means a total of 62%) which reflect the perpetuation of the historic networks of power that determines promotion and recruitment.

The top 5% of earners take 30 times more that the bottom 5%. The 2007 Community Survey estimated that whites earn 8 times more than Africans. An African male earns an average of R2 400 a month whilst a white male earns R19 000. This means that, given an 8-hr working day, whites earn in 1 hour what Africans earn in a day. An estimated 81% of Africans earn less than R6 000 whilst 56% of whites earn more than R6 000.

Inequality is deeply embedded. There is inequality in healthcare: only 9% of the African population belong to a medical aid scheme whilst 74% of the white population do. This is reflected in terms of life expectancy. A white person born in 2009 expects to live for 71 years, whereas an African born in the same year expects to live for 48 years, 23 years less. 

There is inequality in education: 70% of matric passes are accounted for by 11% of the schools which are historically white, Indian and Coloured. The pass rate in African schools is 43%; in white schools it is 97%.  Schools with fees that are less than R20 per year have a pass rate of 44%; those with fees that are greater than R1000 per year have a pass rate of 97%. 

In 2009 around 717 000 students were enrolled at higher education institutions. Of these 62,2% were African; 22,1% White; 7,6% Coloured and 8,1% Asian, but though most students were African, only 2,5% of the African and 2,8% of the Coloured population were enrolled at tertiary institutions as opposed to 11,4% of Asians/Indians and 10,8% of the white population" 

There are huge inequalities in housing. Almost 75% of Indians and more than 80% of whites live in houses with more than 6 rooms, compared to 42% of coloured households and 28% of Africans. 55% of African households have less than 3 rooms and 21% live in 1-room houses. 

This is the obvious question I talked about earlier. I normally talk in class terms, to say the opulence of the few always explain the poverty of the many.  This is a huge contradiction in our society, but increasingly this contradiction is taking a class dimension.

The black majority has aspirations too; they want to escape from the clutches of poverty and unemployment and they resent inequalities. They can see that on the other side of the street the grass is green. The white minority have fears that the black majority may want to take a short cut to development through replacing them as senior managers and in all other privileges inherited from the past.

I have listened to so many voices expressing these contradictions on radio. Basically some are waiting for real transformation and real freedom whilst others fear anything called transformation, affirmative action and black economic empowerment.

I have already over and over again pointed out the danger of a ticking bomb, that unless we can do something drastic about the crisis of unemployment, in particular youth unemployment, we risk another 1976 uprising.

How do we reconcile these contradictions and build a non-racial and more egalitarian future for our children? The starting point to us is that there can be no genuine reconciliation if we retain the status quo!

Our argument is that we need a new growth path that can address all the structural fault lines of the colonial economy. This means that a new growth path must break up the concentration of power and production and break from the mineral and finance dependency of our economy. Any tinkering on the sidelines whilst Rome is burning or just pouring old wine in new bottles.That will not help take us out of the current contradictions.

Shouting neoliberal slogans such as saying that there must be economic growth and everything will then fall into place is not only reckless but narrow and irresponsible.

Affirmative action is still essential if we are to achieve reconciliation but it will not work if it simple means condemning more people from the minorities to unemployment and poverty, while enriching a tiny number of people from the majority.

Land reform is a good example of this. We cannot tolerate the present grossly unequal ownership of land, but solutions must ensure that land is used productively by well trained and well equipped black farmers, to ensure food security for the poor. Otherwise simply transferring ownership could lead to the land being wasted and our economic woes increased.

True reconciliation and true reconstruction will happen when whites accept that the current inequities are not sustainable politically in the long run. Equally reconstruction and reconciliation will happen the day the black majority accept that equity is of critical importance, but that precisely because of our past the white minority has better education and better kills.

I am talking in general terms here because it is not always true that every black person has no skill and every white person has skills. The point I am raising though is that we need get the two contradictions turned to our advantage. We need our diversity to work for our country. Failure to do this will lead to the common ruin of all those that are in involved.

Of course it is the black majority that has a responsibility to extend their hand of reconciliation. After all the only ones with a better chance to achieve national reconciliation are the victims of the past racial segregation. That is why Nelson Mandela had to do what we all admire him for. That is what made him to be respected as a father of our nation.

When we conducted a survey to check the attitudes of our members to democracy in 1999, we were not shocked to learn that 4 out of every 10 workers said they experienced racism in their workplaces. Racism and reconciliation are like water and oil - they don't mix.

The biggest threat to this is the extent of poverty and desperation on the part the majority and the rise of narrow nationalism and racial arrogance. Resorting to crude Africanist demagogy when facing the challenges of our time will only worsen the situation of divisions. It may attract some support from the poorest section of the black majority on one hand and the racist and fearful minority on the other but will spell disaster in the long term.

In Europe, right-wing, even fascist, parties are gaining ground in the wake of the financial crisis, seeking to shift the blame for the social problems on racial minorities and immigrants. South Africa must not go down that road which can only lead to the common ruin of all our people.

I end, as I began, with the Freedom Charter. If we are serious about making that historic document a reality we should never forget the clause which declared that "the national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people". That is the only route to a non-racial future in South Africa.

Thank you very much.

Issued by COSATU, May 26 2011

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