The State of the Nation Address (SONA) was for the first time delivered outside the National Assembly Chambers since the dawn of the South African constitutional democracy. The symbolism of this was a relegation of key issues, metaphorically starting with a parliamentary process to a City Hall.
In the same logical plane, the SONA was underwhelming, more like a State of the City Address discussing municipal permits and how to open ice cream stalls. However, the underwhelming sentiment cut through the message of the SONA with the State outsourcing its mandate of the nation, to private business.
As a trade union, we were startled by the elevation of private business to perform national functions when we know through the history of our struggles that the primary business of capitalists is to make profits and not to create jobs. Our regulatory framework has always sought to facilitate an environment where companies can be profitable. This has been done even at the expense of the working class.
The Labour Relations Act (LRA) in s189 read with s213, allows companies to retrench workers in order to make more profits. Over the past few years, we have seen millions of workers losing their jobs through retrenchments. In the SONA, the President reported that more than two million workers lost their jobs in the past year adding to the sea of unemployment. These jobs were lost in the private sector using existing legal instruments such as the LRA. How then do you entrust the same institutions that have continued to shed jobs leading to the highest unemployment recorded in the Country’s history, with a national responsibility of creating jobs?
South Africa is resembling a failed state with the collapse of the security cluster as a tipping point. More than 300 lives were lost in the July unrests and to date no responsible individual has been called to account. This happened when the state intelligence was in the Presidency, as there was no minister of state security at the time. However, the promise in the SONA that heads will roll is reactive and uninspiring considering that no meaningful action has been taken, in similar instances, to people responsible for the loss of black lives in the Marikana Massacre.
The SONA was an outline of plans when the nation was expectant of an account of progressive interventions in the legacy of the ruling party’s hold on political power in this constitutional democracy. There was mention of structural constraints to delivering the aspirations of South Africans. Part of these constraints, it must be admitted, arise from the constitution.
Although the President revered this as the ‘most beautiful document’, there is an English idiom that says not all that glitters is gold. It is high time that the Country moves away from its sentimental attachment to the constitution and reflects critically on how it serves a modern South Africa. The constitution was a transitional document and cannot continue to exert limitations to current progress on the basis of legacy issues.
The multi-party system espoused in the constitution continues to support a flawed party-political electoral system which makes elected representatives to be loyal to their political parties, and not to the citizens of the country. AMCU has always called for a review of the electoral system to a Presidential electoral system where the country elects an individual, and not a party, for the office of the President. This will bring back accountability not to a so-called Integrity Committee, and rather to the citizens of the country.
The country continues to be bedevilled by the triple challenge of unemployment, poverty, and inequality. Youth unemployment is the highest in the world, and even graduates share this pool with those who haven’t finished formal secondary education. The SONA reported that the Employment Tax Incentive would provide massive success without providing specific numbers. Private businesses are incentivized to employ young people, which threatens the replacement of older workers by young workers after gaining workplace experience.
The National Skills Development Plan (NSDP) indicates that the training participation rate is currently at 47%. Companies are not training workers as much as they should. However, despite these limitations in the world of work, there is a mismatch between the demand of the economy and the supply provided by the education system. There is a disjuncture between labour supply and labour demand. Graduate unemployment is startling considering that young people graduate in TVET Colleges and Universities and still remain unemployed.
Our skills development focus remains reactive as it is focused on training for employment and not training for creating demand. As AMCU, we call on all universities to be redirected so that they can produce an engineer who is able to transform platinum to a fuel cell, or catalytic convertor or another product of the future. Currently these universities are producing ‘rock engineers’ who are trained on extractive engineering, mine modelling and providing efficient skills to extract our minerals with no knowledge of what to do to them after that. This was systematically designed to serve the neoliberal agenda of exporting raw materials.
The South African export-led growth model when it comes to minerals, has limited growth and job creation over the years. The SONA referred to strengthening Transnet in order to improve our ports for the efficient exportation of South African commodities. The fundamental challenge with this is that the country exports jobs in the process.
We are told that one mining job in South Africa supports three in Europe. The lack of manufacturing and beneficiation capacity in the Country is the primary limitation to employment creation. Various policy interventions have failed to transform this, from Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP) 1 to IPAP 2, the New Growth Path and even the National Development Plan and trade arrangements like African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which led to the closure of major employers like Rainbow Chicken.
As such, AMCU took it upon itself through a s77 Protest Action, to march to the Union Building and submit specific demands. We demanded that a moratorium be instituted where there are quotas to the minerals that are exported outside the Country. Of all our net commodity exports, 40% must be beneficiated in the country. The State must insist that those purchasing our minerals, if they still want to have access to South African commodities, must come and open part of their beneficiation operation in South Africa. This should be coupled with an industrialization drive where the State creates industries in the same logical plane as State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), in order to smelt and process our own minerals.
The notion that the State does not create jobs and yet is considered to be a developmental state cannot be mentioned in the same sentence. We need strong state institutions to drive industrialization and job creation. The call on local procurement is a tired rhetoric from the days of the New Growth Path and the Local Procurement Accord.
The State as the biggest procurer spent billions in Covid funds purchasing masks from China. How much of the Covid PPE was manufactured in South Africa? The country’s industrial base is so depleted that it is now a retail economy. This is why all infrastructure development in the township is associated with building a mall.
These malls are consumption-driven economies for people who do not have jobs. If the country was industrially driven, every cent that was spent on building a mall should have been used to construct a factory. Then people would have jobs and invariably purchasing power. But through these malls we are creating a market for products brought into the country from foreign markets. Our manufacturing base is hampered by decisions to close big companies such as Highveld Steel in Witbank so that Kusile Power Station can import steel from China. We have massive reserves of iron ore and yet were don’t have enough processing plants to build our own trains, rail, and power generation infrastructure.
These decisions require a bold state, that will put embargoes and tariffs on local minerals and protect local industries from international competition while building our manufacturing base to create jobs.
As workers, we are worried about the future of work and the protection of employment opportunities.
The SONA did not inspire confidence in the future.
How much money is spent to organise the SONA? Could this money not be spent on building classrooms in rural? The unemployment in this country is by design. It serves a certain narrow interest. Where there is a will, there is a way. There is no will to bring dignity to the lives of the nation, in particular the black citizens of our country.
By Joseph Mathunjwa
14 February 2022