The relationship of job losses to human suffering struck me even more clearly this week when I came across a February report by Stats SA. At the time I was researching potential job losses in the mining, poultry and sugar sectors.
It raised again the question of responsibility and what might be done, outside of changing the system, with perhaps 26 000 jobs to be lost over the next few years in the mining sector alone. Taking into account the knock-on effect in communities, this probably means 250 000 or more men, women and children will face greater hardship.
Then there are the recently signaled potential job losses in the rural and semi-rural areas that house the productive poultry and sugar sectors. These would also have multiplier effects across supply chains.
And with increased economic hardship comes the crippling reality of malnutrition. According the Stats SA report, based on 2016 figures, approximately a third of all children under the age of six in Gauteng and the Free State are stunted as a result of “chronic malnourishment”.
Given the number of jobs lost since then, the growth in population, and the decline in real terms of the income for many low wage earners, this situation is almost certainly worse today. These children are impaired physically and intellectually and will never reach their full potential.
But malnutrition also impacts severely on expectant mothers: South Africa has one of the highest low-birth-weight rates in the world. This also leads to high infant mortality.
And it is unemployed working people, along with many often registered in the official statistics as employed, who make up the numbers in these horrific statistics. Which was probably why Minerals Minister Gwede Mantashe expressed shock at the announcement that Implats intends cutting up to 13 000 jobs.
But he turned all his ire on the company, commenting that Implats cared only about making profits. However, that is the nature of the system that his party in government administers and, apparently, wishes to maintain.
What Mantashe and other officials fail to acknowledge is that labour is the only major cost over which mining companies have control. Electricity and transport – provinces largely of state-owned enterprises Eskom and Transnet – and fuel prices are cost factors over which government has control.
And government, as the ultimate regulator, also allowed platinum producers in particular to hugely over-produce in order to try to cash in as fast as possible on the high prices that were obtained until about 2008. This adds strength to the broad union argument that government is not a neutral regulator, but is “in the pockets” of capital.
The same can be said of government action – and inaction – in other sectors, although incompetence and lack of capacity may also play a part.
“They admit there is a crisis, but they have still done nothing,” says Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) general secretary Katishi Masemola about problems in the sugar and poultry sectors.
Sugar is still being imported, under-cutting South African production. Union members also claim that major beverage producers have stockpiled subsidised sugar that was dumped in the country during a tariff-free period last year.
Melanie Shaw of campaigning group FairPlay acknowledges that such a tariff-free period did exist. “Government seems to have taken its eye off the ball,” she says. Beverage producers clearly did not.
But FairPlay and Fawu are particularly concerned about the ongoing under-cutting of poultry, especially from Brazil. However, with a general election looming, it is widely expected that government will remove value-added tax (VAT) from chicken.
“But it is too little, too late,” says Masemola, since imports are continuing to undermine the local industry. Shaw also points out that there are potential health risks: “The European Union banned Brazilian chicken imports because of fears about contamination, but we have continued,” she said.
The local poultry industry, a major contributor to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), was badly hit last year by an outbreak of avian flu, perhaps losing close to R1bn. Now producers are continuing to battle with what they say, with justification, is grossly unfair competition; it is competition that enriches importers and retailers at the expense of crippling local production.
Local production crippled by unfair competition means not only more job losses and suffering; in the long term it could mean the effective takeover of SA Inc, something the decolonisation lobby would do well to consider.