Monday, April 29, 2013

Lessons from South Africa for U.S. Workers?

Today is the last day of my Monday discussion section for History 112: Modern South Africa.  The course ends in the immediate aftermath of apartheid, and this week we’ll be discussing Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness, which recounts his prominent role in the country’s national healing effort, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In the past couple of weeks we’ve been discussing the apartheid state, anti-apartheid movements, and the process by which that extraordinary system of inequality was dismantled.  Tellingly, some of the first cracks in its edifice appeared when the country’s captains of industry, beginning in the  1970s and continuing into the ‘80s made representations to the government, imploring them to relax its commitment to “Grand Apartheid” and relax labour laws.

Faced with inflation, a falling reserve, and a shortage of skilled labour (engineered by apartheid’s segregation of the workplace and refusal to train black South Africans for more than rudimentary tasks) in the nation’s changing economy, South African business became highly vulnerable to strike action.  Unions had been banned, but this did not stop a massive series of strikes which threw industries into a panic.  Absent anyone with whom to bargain, businesses realised that they needed to persuade the government to change course.

In the coming years, many of the laws which had been pillars of apartheid were taken down, a move which called the absolutist logic of the system with which many Afrikaners had grown up into doubt.  No sooner had the perverse system been “perfected”, than it began to be dismantled at the behest of the captains of industry because of the power black workers were able to leverage against them. 

What I find interesting about this (simplified) chain of events is that black workers were able to succeed not by negotiating with the apartheid government, but by circumventing it altogether and striking at a weak link in the economy, which threatened very powerful interests in the country.  The state would simply have met them with repression (and in many cases did, including at the behest of big business), but in the end, capital had too much to lose to fight to the bitter end in the way that Afrikaner nationalists would have liked.  The pragmatism of the business community, in the end, trumped the fanaticism of the country’s white rulers.

Of course, the struggle for the full dismantling of apartheid was a much longer and more painful process, and one which ultimately sacrificed the dream of economic equality for the sake of inter-community harmony. 

Nonetheless, there seem to be potential lessons for the United States in the South African experience.  Today, workers are increasingly being ground down in the work place by a range of new technologies, practises, and ideologies which subordinate their welfare utterly to the greed and profiteering of ever-larger and more powerful business interests. 

At the same time that these corporate interests—which by having the benefits of citizenship conferred upon them have managed to gain control of both political parties—are reaping record profits, workers are facing some increasingly grim times. 

Lobbying a political class which has sold itself quite shamelessly to these economic gangsters—think of the Obama administration’s criminal failure to go after people who broke the law in instigating our financial crisis and recession—doesn’t seem to work.  It would be a difficult task in a nation where those same gangsters have broken up most organised labour, but it seems to be the case that to restore a measure of equity in our country, workers need to bypass the formal political arena and strike at capital. 

This is an infinitely more complex ambition in an era when corporate interests have recourse to outsourcing, but it is quickly becoming a matter of survival for those of us who have not seen record profits in the past five years. 

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