Can capitalism be reformed or is it beyond redemption, thereby leaving radical system change the only real alternative?
This question arises from Richard Calland's article "The battle for power is about to begin" (January 18). I'm of the radical change persuasion, but I would be delighted to be proved wrong.
The challenge facing the ANC's new deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, according to Calland, is "to put real pressure on big business, to ensure that it plays its part in creating jobs and being open to the changes necessary to build a labour-intensive, low-carbon economy that is fit for global competitive purpose and, moreover, that treats its workers fairly and decently, both with regard to wages and working conditions".
Let's consider each of the particulars of this formidable list that poor Ramaphosa is supposed to address on his own:
- Job creation: Creating jobs is central to all recent government policies, and organised business formally endorses many of these commitments. The reality is that South African business has the dubious distinction of having doubled unemployment the fastest anywhere, worldwide, in the past 10 years. Moreover, it continues to create levels of unemployment worse than that of the Great Depression (1929 to 1933), when United States unemployment peaked at 25%;
- Labour investment: Almost all government economic policies call for labour-intensive production. Business, which has never disagreed with this approach, has persistently practised the opposite, namely capital-intensive investment;
- A low-carbon economy: Despite the government's commitment to reduce South Africa's carbon emissions, the opposite is happening. The government – with business's support – proceeds to build not only two large coal-fired electricity generators but also opens a large number of new coal mines, in part for coal owners to cash in on the lucrative export of coal.
- Other than the few relatively small businesses involved in renewable energy, big business seems content with the entirely misplaced modesty of the country's current renewable-energy programme;
- Global competition: Even if business was able to deliver on any of the above, it would be incompatible with being globally competitive. Global competition, driven mainly if not entirely by profit maximisation, unavoidably leads to the only possible outcome: a "race to the bottom" involving all economic, labour, social, environmental and climate-change factors; and
- The treatment of workers: Employees must be treated fairly and decently both with regard to wages and working conditions. Besides the demands and consequences of global competition, profit maximisation alone means that workers cannot be treated as people.
The recent research on the affordability of farmworkers and their inhuman pay that has rightly received notice underscores this: pay of more than R104 a day would be unaffordable for many farm owners, yet even pay of R150 a day would result in malnutrition for the worker's family.
There would be some basis for Calland's challenge to Ramaphosa if any capitalist country was able to meet all five of the above objectives. This, however, is far from being the case. Yet South Africa's immediate economic and political future will be framed by the specificities of how Calland's five objectives are not met.
More particularly, they will be determined, if my assessment has merit, by how long it takes Cosatu, other trade unions and sections of civil society to realise and be prepared to act on capitalism's inability to meet Calland's seemingly reasonable reforms. – Dr Jeff Rudin, Alternative Information and Development Centre, Cape Town