Letters to the Editor: August 26

M&G editorial is prejudicial
I had to rub my eyes in disbelief after reading your editorial “Deadly dangerous judgment day” (August 19). The Mail & Guardian has a reputation that its views are presented with careful reasoning and are founded on facts; an exercise in logic as an antidote to prejudice. We are used to demagoguery in politics, but when it enters journalism through an M&G editorial it is a bit of a stunner.

For starters, you insultingly dismiss the statement we issued last week.
It welcomed debate around the nomination for the post of chief justice, appealed for the debate to be conducted on the basis of facts and within the bounds of common decency, and cautioned against impugning the office of the chief justice, our judiciary and especially the Constitutional Court. I guess it is tough for you to heed the advice of the president, so you dismiss it as a “spurious statement”.

I shall not engage here on the merits or demerits of the nomination. That is in the public domain and before the Judicial Service Commission as well as the leaders of political parties in Parliament. Nor shall I address issues of common decency. Consider only this characterisation in your editorial: “someone with dubious judgment, a social conservative, a traditionalist, with apparently homophobic tendencies and religious to boot ...”

We may disagree with social conservatism; we may cut ourselves adrift from the moorings of the traditions of our respective cultures (though I am not sure that the editorial writer would do so from his or her culture) we may even be irreligious. None of this gives us the right to treat the beliefs and practices captured in these labels as disqualifications, except when a specific belief or practice conflicts with other provisions of the Bill of Rights. Indeed, they are part of the beliefs and customs against which the Bill enjoins us, and, more particularly, the state, not to discriminate.

You poison your pen when you take elements that are part of the warp and weave of our diverse society and turn them into swear words. Thanks for reminding us that demagoguery is not the preserve of politicians; that prejudice dressed as enlightenment is not alien to editorials, even when the paper happens to be the M&G.—Mac Maharaj, special envoy and spokesman for the president

‘Hidden’ figures hide a whole lot more
Kevin Davie’s and Sipho McDermott’s figures (”The hidden economy”, Business, August 19) are interesting and well worth studying. With the aid of a pocket calculator it is possible to work out some of the macroeconomic implications. Davie and McDermott seem to think that these “hidden economy” figures (“hidden”, although they come straight from the South African Revenue Service) are reassuring. I would differ with this.

Your gross domestic product (GDP) figures purport to show that the economy has grown fivefold since 1995. That would require us to have the highest economic growth rate in the world. Seemingly you forget that there is such a thing as inflation. If we assume economic growth of 4% (it was lower in the 1990s and since 2007, but slightly higher between 2003 and 2006) then the economy would have grown by some 90% in this period. The difference between this easily calculable figure and Davie’s and McDermott’s figures gives us the real inflation rate.

Interestingly, between 1995 and 2000 inflation turns out to have been low (about 4.4%) but accelerated sharply between 2000 and 2005 to nearly 8%. (This is plausible: the economy was growing rapidly and this often encourages inflation.)

Between 2005 and 2011, however, inflation was even higher—at least 8.5%, probably more, because economic growth has been stagnant.

Official inflation figures do not reflect this. Presumably they are cherry picked at best, faked at worst. But the looming probability of double-digit inflation helps to explain the current wave of strikes that have so upset the M&G and big business generally—the workers know their pay packets are dwindling.

In 2008, according to your figures, 28.8% of the population was employed. (If we assume that half the population is actually employable, that means the real unemployment rate was about 42%.) In 2011 that had fallen to 25.7%, a relative fall of over 10%, pushing my “real” unemployment rate up over 48%. Those who have lost their jobs are overwhelmingly those with low incomes, so this implies a massive surge in social inequality. Nor is there any evidence of job creation at a rate capable of reducing unemployment.

Further fascinating information was provided by the income-tax base, which has supposedly surged from 4.7% of the population in 1995 to 19.8% in 2011. But this surge has produced an increase in revenue (as a proportion of GDP) of only 19% (from 20.6% to 24.5% of GDP).

What this seems to mean is that a lot of the population—77% of the workforce—are paying taxes, but most are not contributing a lot. On the other hand, a higher proportion of the poor are contributing to taxes than in the past, meaning that revenue collection has become less redistributive than it was in 1995, which could further contribute to inequality. This would be the case even if the taxpayers of 1995 were contributing the same inflation-adjusted amount in 2011—but in fact top-level taxes have been reduced, so in all probability taxation is even more unequal than the M&G‘s figures suggest.

So, your figures depict an economy where inflation is accelerating despite weakening economic growth, where the distribution of wealth is growing more uneven and where revenue-collection policy is making this even worse, and where unemployment is terrifyingly high (no real news there) but also shows no sign of improving. It seems the country is moving in the direction of increasing crisis. The signs are certainly not good.—Mathew Blatchford, University of Fort Hare

Let the clothing workers decide
Regarding Andries Kriel’s article (”Self-interest is spurring the ‘white knights of Newcastle’”, August 12), the real issue is the wage levels at which clothing factories could remain open.

There are obviously abusers among the factory owners and some regulation is needed to prevent this. But most factories are just trying to be competitive - the fact that they cannot be so is reflected in the high rate of factory closures, either at the hand of the bargaining council or voluntarily. Yes, there are some factories in high-margin sectors and in high fashion that can sustain the wages required by the bargaining council and the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (Sactwu), but most cannot and will have to close.

Even if low wages were allowed, the best the industry could hope for would be to take back a little of the South African clothing market, against the more than 80% held by imports. It would still not be competitive enough to export.

If we had competitive wages, hundreds of thousands of jobs would be created. But so far, the actions of Sactwu have resulted in many thousands of job losses. Kriel tries to infer that this is only happening in Newcastle, but anyone can see the closed clothing factories in many other towns.

The so-called “race to the bottom” that unions say would happen if wages were reduced in South Africa is fiction. China is hardly likely to lower its wages in response to the dropping of wages in little South Africa.

Perhaps the government and unions would consider allowing lower wages only in labour-intensive sectors such as clothing? Otherwise, we are going to see even more job losses. We have to allow people their own choice as to whether they want to work for those wages; it should not be left to the dictatorial closed shop, and the closed factories, of Sactwu.—Bruno Talbot, Johannesburg

Deployment kills
Human Rights Watch reports that the national maternal mortality rate is now 625 per 100 000 births. A similar survey in the hospitals of Zululand between 1993 and 1994 (41 779 deliveries) revealed a mortality rate of 107.7—and this at a time when the province was destabilised by serious political violence, which made for difficulties getting help.

What happened? In 1993, the obstetric doctor and advanced midwives in each district hospital were responsible for the supervision and mentoring of all midwives in the primary health clinics referring to that hospital. They visited them regularly, provided immediate feedback and investigated bad outcomes. They, in turn, were mentored by specialist staff from the referral hospital.

In 1996 the new National Health Act removed the primary care clinics from that supervision, which it put in the hands of a new bureaucracy that became a wonderful opportunity for cadre deployment. The obstetric staff, who received the referrals, and the regional specialists found themselves excluded from the work they had been doing in the district. Often that exclusion came from personnel who felt threatened by their competence.

How do we get back to the relative excellence of the past? Get rid of cadre deployment and give the supervision and training of all district midwifery staff back to the clinical staff in the referring hospitals. And empower the hospitals with the clinical staff to do the job.—Dr JV Larsen, Howick

Where are the leaders?
I have come to the conclusion that the country is facing a leadership crisis. Recently Tito Mboweni spoke about the “lack of leadership in the labour market”, but I think there is more to it than this. In times of oppression and obstacles strong leaders are needed to make the changes that are required. In the case of South Africa it is obvious that there are too few persons with moral integrity and the righteousness needed to lead effectively.

Whether it is youth leaders, business executives, politicians, the judiciary, professors, editors or just general administrators of any nature, their shaky leadership capabilities are becoming clearer by the day. The lack of trust that they have created is harming the country in more ways than can be mentioned here.

Once we can start looking up to our leaders South Africa will be able to move on to greater things. After all, Africa has produced so many charismatic leaders—Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta and Wole Soyinka. Not to mention our retired leaders, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk.—Anthony November, Vanderbijlpark

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