Intersection of Race and Class and its meaning in South African Working Class struggles.

Mcebo Dlamini

Mcebo Dlamini

According Louis Althusser, the logic of capital is that of reproduction. This is because no production is possible unless it ensures the reproduction of the material conditions of production.

There is no place in the world where race and class intersect as it does in South Africa. Colonisation has always been interwoven with exploitation which is a direct consequence of capitalism.
During apartheid, this intersection thickened so much that to be black meant to be poor and to be poor meant to be black. The laws of apartheid subjected black workers to unbearable working conditions at almost no pay. Black people were forced to leave their homes to work in the mines and the growing industrial areas to make super profits for white people.
White workers on the other hand had better working conditions and always had higher ranking jobs than blacks, regardless of their experience or intellect. To be white qualified a person to be treated better and earn better in the work place.
Hugh Masekela, in the song Stimela , gives an apt portrait of what it meant to be black and a worker during apartheid. I give this background such that I can highlight that even though black people were workers, their blackness has always been a determining factor of the kind of worker they were to become. Even though race and class intersected, race became the prime signifier. This has not changed post-1994. Under what conditions in a society that proclaims its devotion to the ideals of freedom and equality is the domination of black workers endlessly reproduced?
In the past couple of weeks there have been several protests around South Africa organised by workers demanding better wages and better working conditions. Bus drivers have been on an approximately three weeks strike demanding that they be paid better – these protests have affected the functioning of many other institutions such as schools, hospitals and clinics etc.
This was followed by a national shutdown organised the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu). Chief amongst the demands Saftu was rejecting is a R20/h minimum wage which was negotiated by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). This R20 minimum wage an hour was viewed as a victory by the Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini, stating in an interview that although the minimum wage is not enough it is some form of progress from the previous minimum wage.
What is appalling about these expressions is how a union which claims to represent workers can concede to such a minimum wage when they are aware that these companies make super profits – evident through the millions of rand worth of bonuses that the CEO’s receive. Leader of Saftu Zwelinzima Vavi posed an important question to the leadership of Cosatu when he asked if they would be able to sustain their lives on the R3 200 that they have negotiated for workers. To suggest that black workers must find a way of surviving on R3 200 a month is demanding the impossible. It is dehumanising and cannot be allowed in a country that boasts freedom and democracy.
This negotiation exposes the fungibility of workers. This is to say; these companies are aware that there is a high unemployment rate in South Africa and therefore an excess of people who are willing to be exploited. The implications of this are that a worker who protests for too long or demands too much can easily be replaced.
The consequence of this matrix is that the Labour Relations Act and the Constitution are rendered redundant. These pieces of legislation guarantee, on paper, the protection of worker rights through the right to protest and access to decent paying jobs but the reality is that these rights are inaccessible. The effect is that you can protest and make demands but on the terms that are dictated by the companies.

Because of the power that these companies yield if workers go beyond these terms workers will be fired or the companies threaten to shut down. This brings terror to both the unions and workers because they understand the implications of a company shutting down in a country inundated with poverty and unemployment. The companies have so much power that they can instruct police to shoot workers who refuse to be obedient to the rhythm of capitalism – we saw this in Marikana.
This is how the system of capitalism sustains itself. It presents itself as a system that can be accommodated under democracy and constitutionalism but then places limits on the very same thing that accommodates it. This then means that those who control the means of production can present a slave wage as a decent wage and they are able to do so within the ambit of the law.
According Louis Althusser, the logic of capital is that of reproduction. This is because no production is possible unless it ensures the reproduction of the material conditions of production. This means that capital understands that workers need to be given wages in regulated proportions so that they can take of their basic needs but not enough to start their businesses, buy property or even invest. It is through the creation of this dependency that it thrives. To break this cycle workers and trade unions will need to be resolute, steadfast and not dance to the song of these companies.

Bernard Magubane once suggested, as a temporary measure, that a trade union which is a vanguard of workers ought to have a fund that will be able to cover the basic needs of workers during protest. To end the exploitation capitalism needs to be destroyed and a new economic system introduced.  There is no way that it can be modified to work for the people. This is because it is a system rooted in exploitation. To end capitalism the state must play the primary role. The state will have to nationalise banks and all strategic sectors of the economy and expropriate land without compensation. When the state is in control it is only then that it can be able to put in place regulations that will benefit workers.

Karl Marx stated that all workers must unite and put their weight behind an organisation that will champion the implementation of these policies. It is only then that the worker will completely be liberated.

– Dlamini is a former Wits SRC President and student activist. He writes in his personal capacity.

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