The news media is full of toyi-toying fat people in red T-shirts blockading hospital gates interspersed with pictures of dead and dying babies.

Alternatively the coverage is of other fat people in red T-shirts clutching sticks and whips trundling around, with their fat bottoms swaying, looking for pupils (bravely trying to uplift themselves by continuing their studies during the public sector wide strike) to beat and otherwise disrupt.

There is a degree of truth in the story… I mean, turn on your television, they’re everywhere, with their megaphones and coffee flasks (and clearly a lot of biscuits and sandwiches), belligerent and unattractive as it is possible to be.

But I suspect that we should treat the picture and the solutions that seem obvious (and are being offered by every newspaper and television station in the country – with unusual unanimity) with more than a degree of caution.

It’s impossible to realistically analyse the strike here – and anyway that is work I have to try to sell to a paying client – but there are some questions I would urge us all to bear in mind.

I lay some of them out here as bullet points:

  • Government has offered 7% with a R700 housing allowance (an offer that amounts, according to the employer, to between 9.4 percent and 8.5 percent, depending on grade) and unions are demanding 8.6 percent wage increase across the board and housing allowance of R1 000. This seems closer than it is – the difference between the offer and counter offer, when aggregated across the public sector, makes a huge difference to the fiscus and to the actual take home value of the workers’ pay packages. Both parties have something to fight for.
  • Workers strike at great cost to themselves – generally, by-and-large and when all the exceptions are smoothed out. Try for a moment and to imagine risking your job and deliberately deciding to take on being portrayed as greedy, callous and on a kind of stolen holiday. This is especially true in the public sector, where the customers you are involved in servicing are your neighbours, their children and the sick of your community.
  • We have the highest levels of inequality (measured by something called the Gini coefficient) of any country that keeps realistic figures in the world – and if not ‘in the world’ then we are in the company of only one or two others. In a public sector wage conflict the employer is government (with politicians representing the owners and the senior bureaucrats the managers). The differential between the earnings of public sector workers and their employers – both of whom take their pay package from the public purse – is a factor many times higher than in most countries in the world. When you add to this the public perception (and the strikers are part of that public) that the politicians are engaged in a nasty, sharp-toothed feeding frenzy at the aching teat of the public purse, ransacking the long built up assets of the public sector and using every mechanism possible to extort money from the private sector, is their any wonder that public sector workers see their lot as unfair?
  • Cosatu and its various member unions and the worker leadership “on the ground”, so to speak, is getting the kind of press it deserves. The behaviour of too many striking workers is so unacceptable that the unions are inviting a Maggie Thatcher to emerge from these battered streets to crush them and reformulate the South African economy to be a growth machine that will benefit merchant bankers and the rich … and no-one else. And the public will cheer that politician on, because the unions have not bothered to see the middle-ground as worth fighting for.
  • This strike –  as a culmination of other things but also in and of itself – is the death knell for the ruling alliance. It imposes upon the vague conflict between Nationalists and “Tenderpreneurs” on the one hand, and trade unions and communists on the other, a clear organisational character and a clear set of objectives and costs over which the contenders deeply disagree. Government might find more money. The unions might shift an inch to meet government’s next offer but I suspect this is the moment that South African politics has been circling ever since Mbeki slapped the unions and “the left” into a subservient position over ten years ago. I am not awaiting a formal announcement by Vavi that he is leading his cohorts into the wilderness. But I expect that in practice the unions and the communists will be out of government within the next few years (Perhaps even more than they were “out of government” under Mbeki … and I use “the next few years” to give myself a margin).

This week is going to be full of the strike and its consequences. It is, ultimately, not a hugely profound point,  but now, more than ever, we need to urge caution in seeing the world as a simple representation between good guys and bad. This impulse, to see things as if they were simple and easy to understand, is increasingly the direction of public discourse on radio, newspaper and television. We need a kind of private media tribunal in our heads.

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