Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Why I rant about economic issues

Today's blog post will be aggressive and detailed, but I think it's very important in terms of understanding the world view from which I write. So for this once, I will stash away my snide comments and sarcasm, and address the issue of economic disparity with the seriousness it deserves.

I've always believed that the most important function of a state is to look after the best interests of its people. To ensure that human rights are always respected, that service delivery is fast and efficient and that society is generally safe and pleasant. Economic growth, foreign direct investments and the like are only the means to this end. It really saddens me when state becomes a business, prioritising wealth over the well-being of its people. Natural and obvious consequences of this the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. The benefit of our great natural resources are benefiting South Africans in a very superficial way: some of people get to work in very dangerous conditions under the guise of "job creation", and some privileged elite get to see their names on the list of board of directors. Other than that, we do not benefit in any meaningful way, since the vast profits all go offshore.

I will quote liberally from an article on the subject of whether or not our social and economic rights under the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (like your right to access to medical care, a decent standard of living, proper housing, etc.) will ever get the wings they need to be realised in our country.

Firstly, let us acknowledge the effect of corruption:

According to the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, corruption costs South Africans about 20% of the Gross Domestic Product of the country14. South Africa’s nominal GDP estimate for the year 2010 was R2,7 trillion15. This figure is truly frightening in the face of all the problems that require urgent redress according to the NDP. In fact, since the formation of the first democratically elected government, only a very small percentage of the previously disadvantaged have prospered from the opportunities that were unleashed. Unfortunately, these few have either been the exception to the rule; or more commonly, they have been politically connected or the beneficiaries of nepotism16. The domestic term coined for this group is the “Black Elite”17.

Further, it has been found that 42% of executive public officials are in positions of potential conflict of interest18. Tenders for public contracts are regularly granted through unethical means19; the news of recent scandals involving alleged corruption of officials being is now met with depressing familiarity. For example, in relation to the right to an “adequate standard of living” including “clothing and housing” as outlined in Article 11 of the ICESCR, 1 910 public officials were arrested and R44 million was recovered after an audit task team found these officials to be benefitting fraudulently from housing subsidies20. There are many other such cases of corruption contributing directly or indirectly to the contravention of the socio-economic rights as outlined in the ICESCR21,22,23.

Government corruption is therefore a major obstacle to the realisation of full socio-economic rights for all citizens. As Patricia Carrier notes: “Corruption impedes a state’s ability to use its available resources to progressively achieve the full realization of [socio-economic] rights because national resources are instead diverted into the pockets of public officials, or because development aid is mismanaged, misused or misappropriated”24, 25.

So that's a brief on corruption, but this is definitely not the only thing stopping us achieving what we deserve. Big multinational corporations also present an issue in terms of intellectual property protection, putting protection of their money before protection of human life:

Pharmaceutical companies may hold the right to financially benefit from their innovation in developing life-saving medicines, but the price of these medicines set by the companies may make them unavailable to people that require them and who also hold the right to those life-saving medicines29.  This inherent conflict within these articles, and subsequently with international instruments derived from them30,(refering to international "copyright"rules)  make the proper implementation of these rights problematic. One could even go so far as to argue that the conflict within the document itself makes it a barrier to its own implementation, because there exists an element of mutual exclusivity between the rights contained in it.

So big companies exploit the fact that they too have rights, even if those rights clash directly with my rights and your rights. Then there's the way the world treats poor or developing countries:

Perhaps the most daunting barrier to the realisation of the socio-economic rights guaranteed in the ICESCR is the global economy that is in place. Rajesh Makwana, in the introduction to his article advocating the decommissioning of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), remarks: “Within the competitive global framework, developing countries are left with little choice other than to comply with the neoliberal agenda. As a result of these countries are often left with crippling debt and a fragile economy. Meanwhile foreign investors and multinational corporations gain control of a significant portion of the world’s resources, finance, services, technology and knowledge. Whilst these multinationals report record profits, around 50 000 people die each day from poverty”. This is the modus operandi of the IMF and World Bank; institutions that have been specifically set up to preserve the economic stability of the countries affected by World War II, countries that are now overwhelmingly considered developed countries. For an underdeveloped or developing state to acquire funding from the IMF, the IMF insists on some economic reforms, typically to make these economies more conducive to Keynesian free market dynamics. These structural adjustments, known as Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP), typically include measures like reducing social spending, government budgets, programs and subsidies for basic goods, eliminating foreign ownership restrictions, increasing interest rates, eliminating import tariffs, and switching from subsistence farming to export economies. These have devastating effects on the state’s ability to provide elementary socio-economic rights, since the state’s power to protect the rights of its constituency is diminished by the preconditions of the loan. South Africa has long been indebted to the IMF, and this includes an estimated Apartheid-incurred debt of US$18 billion. No formal SAP was enforced on South Africa post-Apartheid, but this was largely because of voluntary anticipatory policy adjustments, possibly for appeasement of the money-lenders and investors. These appeasement policies were mainly attributed to the then Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, and his apparent friendliness to the policies and philosophies of the private sector earned him a reputation for representing the interests of business over that of the working class.

As long as the fate of South Africa’s economy is effectively controlled by private domestic and foreign corporate interests, it is na├»ve to believe that socio-economic rights will gain any priority. This is the least domestically manageable of all the barriers mentioned, and is thus the most daunting.

So there you go. A lot to process in one blog, but at least you get the idea of where I'm coming from. If you need my sources and references, ask. Otherwise, enjoy the rainy weather.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Lion and the Spear

Julius Malema. Very few names in contemporary South African politics provoke a more polarised response from the ordinary people. On the one hand, he induces sneering criticism and relentless ridicule. On the other, he is venerated as a political martyr and a revolutionary for the people. So which is it?

Julius is well-known for putting his foot in his mouth. While you pause and amuse yourself with that image, consider the phrase for just a second: "Put his foot in his mouth". If I were to directly translate that into isiXhosa, my Xhosa friends would think Julius was flexible and taut because it would be taken literally, which is obviously not the case. My point is that we cannot judge Julius's linguistic faux pas by English standards. There is a rich figurative imagery in isiXhosa that English-speakers will never quite grasp. We should be trying to decipher his message, rather than his dubious presentation.

I think the problem with Julius's "revolutionary" rhetoric is that he does not fit the image of a revolutionary. Che Guevara, Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X looked like they were engaged in struggle for their very survival. Even with his military cap, Julius looks engaged in a struggle to the front of a buffet queue. Leads one to think: what could he possibly want to revolt against? What is it that gets his throat grumbling louder than his stomach? In an interview I saw a while ago, a subdued Julius explained himself candidly. Yesterday, the struggle was against Apartheid: a struggle against overt oppression and institutionalised racism perpetrated against the non-white population of South Africa. Today, there is another sinister threat to the people, economic slavery. With this I totally agree: as a developing nation, we are subject to a concerted effort by developed nations to maintain their own wealth. It is a simple principle of putting national and domestic corporations' interests first. While our economy has grown over the past decade, youth unemployment has reached 40%, with total unemployment at 25%. The statistics on poverty, homelessness, medical accessibility, the gap between rich and poor are all similarly disturbing. These numbers show that running our country like a business is not in the best interests of the people from whom government collects taxes. Is the role of tax not to provide utilities and services to the people? Why are they going into paying the interest on loans that were granted to the Apartheid government? All very legitimate concerns, and possibly partial explanations for revolutionary rhetoric. I would suggest that, although the methods employed and the behaviour displayed by Julius and the ANCYL are often abhorrent and disrespectful, one cannot help feeling that they are fighting a legitimate battle. A battle they will fail to win until they can properly communicate their ideas and ideals, until they seriously take up a stance against corruption and profiteering, until they become more inclusive, until they accept that perceived cultural superiority is no grounds for arrogance, and until they value educated debate over armed struggle. Julius is right to point out that the disparities in wealth in South Africa still run along racial lines, largely as a result of foreign ownership of our resources. He is not, however, the right man to lead a revolution against it.

So on to the story of the day. The Spear of the Nation by Brett Murray has a piece of art up at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. The artwork shows Jacob Zuma in a really cool pose, except that his "Spear of the Nation" is hanging out of his pants. I guess that in terms of artistic expression, it was an indictment on JZ's sexual virilty and raging heterosexuality. After all, the man does have four wives and some other special ladies in his life. He has also been charged with rape, corruption and cronyism. So surely this piece of satire is justified?

The short answer is: no. He has never been convicted of any of these crimes, and his customs allow him to marry more than one woman, like most customs around the world. Also, he is a popular president, despite what the media portrays. Just imagine the outrage if Helen Zille were painted in the same way, with her penis hanging out (DON'T get ideas). The political inuendo's would be obvious, but it would be in very bad taste. And no one wants to see it. I am in no way defending JZ; all I am saying is that political satire has always had a proud place in South African social commentary. Zapiro is a master of it. But when it sinks to this level, there must surely be resistance from decent people. It is the comedy equivalent of toilet humour. The boxing equivalent of a cheap shot. It is the rugby equivalent of Bryce Lawrence. We can do better than this people.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Debutant Strides In..

I must be honest, I am so often tempted to ridicule and chastise people that don't know anything that is happening in the world around them. Sit on my little thrown of smug self-righteousness that would undoubtedly alienate me from the same people I so wish to show the error of their ways. Much like a current affairs evangelist, if you will. So what I have endeavoured to do instead is to write a non-intrusive little blog outlining one or two major stories happening out there, because I truly believe that people are going to get seriously cut when the glass houses they have chosen to view the world through shatters on the impact of the stones of social justice and the high-pitched wail of revolution.

So let's start with things right here at home. The Democratic Alliance held a march this week to COSATU's house to demand that the union take up a supportive stance on the youth wage subsidy approved by Jacob Zuma to the tune of R5-billion. What is this youth wage subsidy? Well, my moocher friends, it's government's commitment to help companies out financially if they hire fresh young graduates. That means that this subsidy could actually get 400 000 of us jobs! I swear that Zille woman is like a black Oprah. However, COSATU contends that these employers would fire some of the current workforce to hire young blood, to benefit from these subsidies. So there is disagreement on the matter, and in true South African fashion, the folks at the DA took to the streets. But, alas, there was a twist in this tale. Everyone on the street protest circuit knows that COSATU owns the streets. It is their democracy after all. So when those doe-eyed, energetic young social activists took to the streets, they found themselves under attack. Physically under attack. Rubber bullets, stones, crates, "jou ma se" jibes: this street brawl had it all. Unfortunately, only one side came armed, so the whole affair was kind of a whitewash (very inappropriate pun, I do apologise). So a note to all that may disagree with COSATU: don't do it. South Africa isn't THAT kind of democracy.

Further abroad, this week marked the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, the day in 1948 the Zionist Apartheid (according to UN representatives) State of Israel was established. The diaspora (the forced scattering of a people from their homes) displaced over 700 000 Palestinians, and the descendents of these people are now estimated to number 4,2 million. In a darkly appropriate welcoming of this day, around 2000 Palestinians currently being held in Israeli prisons have been on a hunger strike for weeks now. They are demanding unreasonable things like the end of administrative detention (being held without charge, only on suspicion), family visits and access to decent health facilities. Terrorists if you ask me.

So that's the debut blog done. Feel free to comment, add some other news you think is important, or just vent about your ailing love-life and boring job. As long as you stay away from anything in the entertainment sphere.

Have an awesome weekend!