/ 14 March 2023

Little fires everywhere as SA comes to terms with economic decline

Nehawu Gallo
Nehawu members protest outside George Tabor Technical College in Soweto on 8 March 2023. (Fani Mahuntsi/ Gallo Images)

South Africa’s deteriorating economic conditions are hard to ignore. 

Last year, the International Monetary Fund warned in its prognosis of the health of the world’s economy that the worst is yet to come. And in South Africa — despite the encouraging words of a handful of commentators drilling into us that the country can be brought back from the brink — it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine that we will be the exception.

In the period that followed the unrest that swept through parts of the country in July 2021, some have warned that the country’s worsening economic conditions are a powder keg. Another explosion, they’ve said, is guaranteed. 

In the meantime, social upheaval has taken a form that we have become more and more accustomed to: little fires everywhere. The question is, what (and who) will connect those little fires, igniting a full-blown blaze?  

Last week brought another onslaught of bad news on the economic front.

S&P Global downgraded South Africa’s outlook from positive to stable, as the ratings agency flagged that the country’s energy crisis would choke growth This news came after data from Statistics South Africa revealed that the economy shrunk by 1.3% in the fourth quarter of 2022, surprising analysts who were expecting a more shallow contraction and supporting a view that the country is staring down the barrel of yet another technical recession. 

Also backing recession concerns, business confidence slipped again in the first quarter of this year, according to an index compiled by Rand Merchant Bank and the Bureau for Economic Research. The index showed that 64% of businesses are dissatisfied with prevailing operating conditions. 

Then the rand breached R18.50 to the US dollar, its weakest level since May 2020, after Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell’s suggested that interest rates stateside will probably peak at a higher level than was previously expected. 

The majority of us will feel the rand’s weakness most acutely through still elevated inflation and the South African Reserve Bank’s ratcheting up of interest rates in response. Next to load-shedding, a prolonged cost-of-living crisis stands out as one of the biggest risks to the economy and to social stability in the country. 

The cost-of-living crisis has, afterall, given a backbone to a number of protests, including the controversial industrial action by health workers affiliated with the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu). 

Although it is difficult for the public to get behind a strike that has turned so ugly so quickly — especially when it infringes on our access to already inadequate services — we can also appreciate that our deteriorating economic circumstances can, and should be enough of a rallying call for solidarity and more widespread protest.

Last year, trade union federation Cosatu called a nationwide strike with the aim of putting pressure on the government “to fix the economic mess that the country finds itself [in]”. 

In a statement released ahead of the strike, Cosatu outlined some compelling reasons for mass action: “Currently, half the country lives in poverty with many families forced to live without adequate food and many of them cannot find jobs. Workers are dealing with wage stagnation with their wages repealed by inflation and punishing debt … The growing frustration in the country is mainly being fuelled by policies that favour the elite and that are coloured by an animus towards the poor.”  

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) also joined that strike and has supported the current indefinite strike by public sector unions, led by Cosatu. Five years ago, the two federations failed to find common ground when Saftu embarked on a one-day nationwide strike over the pitiful proposed minimum wage and amendments to the labour relations act that watered down the right to strike.

The coming together of Cosatu and Saftu could signal that labour is willing to put aside its differences, which have long undermined the movement’s potency, to take on the state and the capitalist class it has aligned itself with.

The problem is that South Africa’s labour movement has proven to be an unreliable spokesperson for expressing our mutual disillusionment. This is as Cosatu, still the country’s biggest trade union federation, continues to balance its alliance with the ANC against the interests of workers and society.

The federation’s proximity to the governing party has worn away at the public’s trust. 

It also doesn’t help that, because of the fall of private sector unions, Cosatu’s interests have increasingly become aligned to those in the public sector — which is easily blamed for the collapse of service delivery. The last major public sector strike in 2010, which also endangered lives, bitterly divided the country, turning many against unions.

Cosatu is aware that strike action in the public sector threatens its call for solidarity. “A successful strike should be based on persuasion and not coercion. This is the only way to galvanise and mobilise for sympathy strikes and solidarity actions embracing the widest sections of workers,” the federation said this week.

The dispute over public sector wages has become a defining battle in labour’s war for relevance in the tripartite alliance and these political dynamics are heady enough to put the public off for good — even if something actually comes out of Nehawu’s reported agitation to break ranks with the ANC.

If the labour movement fails to hold true in its fight for a more just economy, and if it can’t unite other sections of society under this banner, co-ordinated action against a failing state may continue to elude us. Whether you consider that a good or a bad thing is your business.

What we know is this: those little fires will keep on burning. Many more may be lit. And, if we have learned anything from the unrest in 2021, it is that the character of the eventual blaze — whether it is cleansing or chaotic and dangerous to everything in its wake — will be determined by those who control it.