Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Workers take to the streets in South Africa

From the Scotsman:
"HUNDREDS of thousands of workers yesterday staged a general strike and marches through the cities of South Africa in protest against appalling unemployment which has left more than half the population living in poverty.

The strike, called by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), was the biggest day of industrial action since the African National Congress came to power with the fall of apartheid in 1994.

Ironically, ANC ministers were yesterday meeting in Kliptown, a poor district of the township of Soweto, to commemorate the launch there 50 years ago of the historic Freedom Charter, a clause of which spoke of "the right and duty of all to work".

However, with unemployment running at 40 per cent, some 22 million of the country's 43 million people are now below the official poverty line.

All the main sections of industry - mines, iron and steel, vehicle assembly, transport, tourism and textiles - were hit."
The key demand of workers is that the government reduce the high value of the Rand, which has hit South Africa's exporting industries particularly hard.

That yesterday was an occasion to mark the anniversary of the Freedom Charter is indeed ironic, particularly if we are reminded what it says:
"The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people;

The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole;

All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people;

All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions"
Because apartheid has been abolished and representative government elected on universal suffrage has been introduced, most of the other aims of the freedom charter have been fulfilled. These economic aspirations have been rather more problematic - and are unlikely to be achieved in the near future, given that they represent a commitment to nationalisation and the regulation of industries - which is in retreat practically everywhere in the world.

Both John Pilger and Peter Hitchens - obviously coming from different standpoints - have been sharply critical of the new South Africa, pointing to the fact that the collapse of apartheid has not brought about a great improvement to the living conditions of ordinary South Africans. Unemployment is running at around 40%; inequality has actually increased amongst blacks; Aids is rampant - a situation not helped by the government's incompetence in this area; and crime, although it has improved in the last couple of years, is still very high with Johannesburg having a reasonable claim to be one of the world's most violent cities. Both Hitchens and Pilger have also highlighted the RSA's involvement in arms sales to the Suharto regime in Indonesia.

Both, I think, were rather unfair in their assessment of the achievements of Nelson Mandela but nevertheless, the criticism - unless one thinks the ANC is above this - is perfectly valid. During the apartheid years, everyone on the centre-left supported the ANC's struggle for the franchise (although people disagreed about tactics) and everyone understood that this implied a regime-change, since the majority black population was hardly likely to return the National Party - the architects of apartheid - to power.

Couple of points, and I hope you don't think they're cheap ones: firstly, while all people of good-will condemned the iniquity of apartheid, I don't remember anyone arguing that the right of the RSA to exist shouldn't be recognised, despite the fact that it's foundation was rooted in Dutch and British colonialism. Also, while most people lost interest in the country after apartheid was dismantled, those who continued to follow events there would not have dreamt of arguing that because the country had grown actually more violent, and because so many of the ANC's aspirations had disappointed - maybe in the interests of stability or utility, the National Party's rule shouldn't have been ended after all. In those days, people on the left used to understand the non-consequentialist argument for regime-change.

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