Towards a new, just world of work

In "Kneejerk liberal opposition tries to limit the powers of the state"(Getting Ahead, October 4), Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande argued that one of "the main imperatives of the post-school system, including the universities" is "to focus our energies and resources on expanding the post-school system to cater for the 3.4-million 15- to 24-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training".

This is a disarmingly laudable objective and one that, if achieved, would signal great social progress – especially if the proposed educational access widens the scope of ­participation in education for the youth of this country.

I do not propose to deal with the implications of the minister's "imperatives" for planning, budgeting and quality assurance. I assume that he takes these issues for granted, and I take it as given that education institutions, including universities, will play their part in attempting to achieve these goals.

We can assume, also, that the minister is referring to qualitative access and not just nominal access, where the quality of the outcomes of learning are unedifying at best and alarming at worst.

The main issue should be how we interpret the injunction to focus "our energies and resources on expanding the post-school system to cater for the 3.4-million 15- to 24-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training". One interpretation (a "kneejerk" one, to use the minister's word) is to link the outcomes of education to the question of employment alone and to the exclusion of its wider purposes.

But this constitutes the great undeclared problem that arises, on the one hand, from the assumptions derived from a particular reading of education and its relationship to the labour market for employment and economic development purposes, and, on the other, from the failure to examine whether these objectives are realistic or meaningful in a society in which particular relations of power are dominant.

A proper interpretation of the minister's injunction requires that we engage with education and training simultaneously with a vision of a new society and new social relations unbounded by the relations of capitalist labour markets alone, because these labour markets, as we know, are notoriously unhelpful for so many who are unemployed for so many years. This is the nub of the issue, since the conventional approaches to higher participation rates remain bound within a conception of such participation as functional to employment and the economy – and little else.

But this is based on several unsupported assumptions. Employment demand is never likely to be the raison d'être for higher rates of labour market participation no matter how often and how loftily it is proclaimed. The phenomenon of demand in global corporate capitalist regimes is simply pointing in another direction – away from higher levels of labour demand towards the service sector. Here, high-technology dependence is an additional, not a mitigating, factor.

Even the periods of economic growth South Africa has experienced have not guaranteed higher levels of demand for jobs. Jobless growth is now an abiding characteristic of "development" because of the many underlying factors that combine to reduce labour demand in the present structural trajectory of capitalist production and distribution systems.

The only basis for making claims based on the demand for higher participation in education lies elsewhere – outside the reach of the potential of conventional economic activity under capitalism. In other words, the possibility of increased demand lies not in the aspiration to meet reducing demand for labour – as wage labour – or as the much-touted "self-employed" entrepreneur, but in the growing demand, based on social justice, for a new scholarship, new learning, new science and new teaching for a new society. Such a demand for work is not based largely, and somewhat capriciously, on the goodwill and power of global corporations but on the criteria of just and socially useful work in a just society.

The elements of that new society and its forms of work – socially defined useful work – provide an alternative and the only real ­promise for a new approach to stimulating educational systems realistically. This entails a different concept of citizenship, based on an understanding of accountability and public engagement far removed from the present levels of consciousness about work and learning in the leading places of learning today.

There is a vast and growing catalogue of occupations, forms of work, livelihood and social engagements that suggest such alternatives – some with long histories and others that are being constructed on the ashes of the failed systems of the present. Many of these involve new forms of collective work, and old and new forms of co-operating through work and social life.

Often these are premised on the work of women, who are doubly oppressed and exploited. Many arise from the desperation born of capitalist neglect and greed, and some are based on "returning to the soil". Many are self-generated, autonomous initiatives and local-level interventions that have very little support from beyond. And some, indeed, have been able to find ways to utilise the resources, especially of the local state, productively, without the unresponsiveness of state bureaucracies but with, and dependent on, its sustained support

But all these initiatives have required a different level of imagination – one based on the single conviction that the present modes of producing livelihoods and work, social demand and the demands of families and small communities are patently not sustainable.

Such an approach to work must simultaneously be based on a new view of cultural formation in society, recognising much more fundamentally than is contemplated even in the Constitution, the value of local social reorganisation and a critical view of the limits of capitalism as a social system.

It requires an alternative framework of thought and action about work that is socially useful and meaningful and that also directly meets the demands of life, especially for those who will remain permanently marginalised by the choices made by powerful and unrepresentative global and local interests.

Enver Motala is a researcher in the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development at the University of Fort Hare

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