The brutal attacks on foreign refugees, which have brought shame on our brave new democracy, are the direct result of the interaction of two failed government policies — one caused by the old African National Congress (ANC) leadership and the other, at least partially, by the new.
The first is the failure over eight years to develop a foreign policy to prevent the implosion of neighbouring Zimbabwe, and of dealing with its inevitable consequences as millions of destitute refugees have poured into SA. For that, Thabo Mbeki’s administration, particularly the president himself, must take full blame.
The other is the failure over the past 10 years of unprecedented economic growth to ensure that more was done to reduce unemployment and to close the wealth gap, so that we did not develop such a tinderbox of disadvantaged groups struggling to survive on the margins of our big cities — the very areas where the refugees land up to intensify competition for the meagre opportunities available.
It should always have been obvious that when the rapid increase in the influx of desperate Zimbabweans hit that tinderbox, there would be an explosion.
But if Mbeki is to blame for the uncontrolled influx, responsibility for the stubborn perpetuation of this large pool of unemployed South Africans rests largely with the new leadership of the ANC — particularly its Congress of South African Trade Union (Cosatu) members. They claim the Polokwane conference elected them in December as “champions of the poor”. Sadly, they are not. As ANC president Jacob Zuma noted in an interview with the Financial Mail in February, there are no champions of the poor in our politics.
The trade unionists, as he pointed out, are part of the so-called first economy, not the second, and “the second economy is in fact neglected by all of us”. Cosatu’s commitment is to protect its members, workers with jobs, and part of that protection involves preventing them from being undercut by cheap labour drawn from that large pool of unskilled, unemployed and mostly young people. The tinderbox.
On the issue of Zimbabwe, it beggars understanding that the president of a regional superpower should stick to the same policy on the region’s most serious crisis for eight years, when it is clearly not yielding results.
One can understand why Mbeki adopted his strategy of “quiet diplomacy” initially. Mugabe is a proud and stubborn man and any public criticism of him would have deepened his stubbornness and provoked a denunciation of Mbeki as a tool of the imperialists. That would have been personally painful for Mbeki and damaging to his larger ambition to lead a continent-wide African renaissance.
Better, therefore, to try to win Mugabe’s confidence in the hope of being able to influence him to either reform or retire.
Fair enough. But there comes a time, surely, when it becomes obvious a chosen strategy is not working and should be changed. That time should have arrived when Mbeki became aware, as we now know he did, that Mugabe had rigged both the 2002 and 2005 presidential elections.
What should Mbeki have done? This column has argued repeatedly that he should have lobbied his Southern African Development Community (SADC) partners to make a joint demarche to Mugabe, warning him that if he again failed to hold an election that was not clearly free and fair in terms of the SADC’s own guidelines, they would not recognise the outcome. They would then regard his regime as illegitimate and suspend Zimbabwe’s membership of the community. That, I believe, would have given him pause, and in doing so could conceivably have produced a reasonably free election, resulting in regime change and an end to the crisis.
Instead, Zimbabwe now faces the uncertain prospect of another rigged election, possibly a military coup, or maybe even civil war. And more floods of refugees into SA.
Why did Mbeki not take a tougher line? Jeremy Cronin, deputy secretary-general of the South African Communist Party (SACP), has offered an explanation that I have also long suspected. He suggests Mbeki believes national liberation movements in the region should close ranks to prevent imperialist powers from using local political agents to reassert hegemony over a former colony, and eventually over the whole region.
It sounds preposterous, but it rings true of a man who has shown signs of such political paranoia. Moreover, I suspect Mbeki finds the prospect of a national liberation movement being ousted from power by a new political party that arose from Zimbabwe’s trade union movement too close to home for comfort.
As for the flood of illegal immigrants, they should have been classified as refugees at an early stage, accommodated in proper refugee camps, and United Nations aid sought to help care for them.
That would have avoided their inflammable contact with our own unemployed masses. But such official classification would have reflected badly on Mugabe, and Mbeki could not bring himself to do it.
On the issue of our local unemployed, Zuma’s observations are obviously pertinent but they are also explosive. They have been raised before, most notably by Deputy Finance Minister Jabu Moleketi, who suggested the introduction of a dual labour market at an ANC national general council meeting in 2005.
Noting that young people are by far the largest group in the ranks of the unemployed (they are also the largest group involved in the attacks on foreigners), Moleketi suggested this was because employers were reluctant to hire youths seeking jobs for the first time because they feared the labour laws would make it difficult to dismiss those who proved unsatisfactory.
To remedy this, Moleketi proposed amending the labour laws to make it easier for employers to hire such first-time workers more cheaply and fire the nonperformers more easily. This provoked a storm, for the labour legislation is holy writ for the unions and the SACP. To propose any amendment is heresy.
The Cosatu leaders dumped on Zuma, too, forcing him to backtrack on his Financial Mail interview with a wimpish statement that he was prepared “to lay down his blood” for the workers.
None of which invalidates the truth of what Zuma said in that interview. The high bar to entry in the job market, combined with our deplorable education system, is condemning a large section of our young people to lives of unemployment. The social dangers are alarming. The attacks on foreign refugees could be just the tip of an iceberg of future unrest.
It is hard to believe a way can’t be found to allow a special entry wage for young people without endangering general worker security. As things stand, SA’s economic development is trapped between the low-skilled labour market of Asia and the high-skilled labour market of the developed countries. As we lose skilled people through emigration and can’t compete at the lower end of the market, we are losing out at both ends.
The new ANC leaders have pledged themselves to champion the poor. For the sake of the country and of their own political futures, they had better live up to that pledge by finding a way to remove this barrier to youth employment. For the biggest single lesson of Polokwane was that if you don’t deliver on your promises, you will be thrown out.