Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

Jonny Steinberg, writing from faraway Oxford, is as eloquent as anyone on the subject of our troubled state, and usually as insightful. However, his latest column was a long way short of his best (Roots of rebellion lie in degrading low-wage work, June 28). Instead it is reductionist, ungenerous and deeply subversive. Attributing the most cynical of motives to masses of working-class men is bad enough, but doing so without a hint of critical judgment is a serious moral failure. Perhaps it’s the unseasonable summer weather they’ve been having.

In fairness to Steinberg, there’s no questioning either his motives or the plausibility of his thesis. He’s plainly sympathetic to those he’s describing — uneducated, downtrodden, disillusioned — and who can doubt that many, perhaps most, working people harbour both some level of resentment and some proclivity for redistributive taking. That’s not justification enough, though, for saying that “only the desperate will do [low-paid work] and that when they steal, they will believe to have taken what is rightfully theirs”. Drawing explicit parallels between wage work in SA today and US slavery in the 19th century is both intellectually cavalier and practically incendiary.

The implicit political critique honours both class and race struggle in a way that will doubtless go down well in the halls of Balliol and Magdalen (this being the home, remember, of the Rhodes Must Fall movement). It’s actually a dog-standard hard-left trope — “property is theft” and “you have nothing to lose but your chains” — and the problem is that it feeds into the worst kind of vengeful local populism.

Context really matters, and a mere rhetorical flourish in the Oxford Union (a debating society) turns into a malignant revolutionary slogan on Oxford Street in Johannesburg.

I’m no anthropologist and I can’t pretend to know what the average working person thinks. I have, though, spent a fair amount of my life in a labour-relating job and what I can share is one consideration that might not have been picked up (or appreciated) by the experts Steinberg references.

What I came to be convinced of, over years of close engagement, is that most people, of every rank, manage to marry seemingly contradictory urges and convictions. Illustratively, one of our senior shop stewards was in the habit of regularly reminding me how committed he was to his union’s communist credo. Just as often though, and sometimes within seconds, he would tell me, in the presence of his “comrades”, how fond he was of the company and how grateful he was for his job.

I came to understand that dissonance not as duplicity, or hypocrisy, but rather as a useful (and maybe necessary) survival skill, in a complex and largely uncontrollable world. And while that construal isn’t provably more accurate than the one offered by ivory tower utopians, it does have two advantages over theirs. It attributes more agency, and integrity, to the workers involved — and it pushes back against defeatism.

Of course it’s true, and highly problematic, that we still live in a society marked by very high levels of inequality and very low wages. We need to be very careful, though, how we deal with these problems and, more fundamentally, how we think about them. There’s a real danger here that the cure proves worse than the sickness.

Raging about injustice and unfairness is good for the progressive soul, but not good at all for the investment climate. Fighting the quadruple scourge of poverty, unemployment, inequality and caucaso-patriarchy is a worthy national cause, but in doing so we have to be mindful that we have a statutory minimum wage, introduced by a left-leaning, labour-favouring government that’s been in power for close on three decades.

The average South African today lives measurably better in material terms than privileged people anywhere did until about 1800, what with running water, insulated homes, cheap illumination, bountiful quality entertainment and readily accessible healthcare.

A steady job paying R3,000 per month is, despite its obvious inadequacy, the stuff of dreams for at least one-billion people around the world. That’s how, for all its dark history, SA has always been a magnet for people further north. Among those holding down the cost of labour are one-million plus refugees from Zimbabwe, itself a living illustration of the perils of angry idealism. Galling as it is to left-liberal sensibilities, there’s truth in the statement that “there’s one thing worse than being exploited and that’s not being exploited”.

SA faces many challenges, notably including low economic growth, substandard educational outcomes, marked ethnic divisions and disabling government corruption. Near the top of the list, though, is a culture of entitlement: the culture that references historic injustice as a justification for all manner of delinquency and underperformance.

I don’t find that hard to understand, or to forgive — my own credo is “to know all is to pardon all” — but it’s a terrible basis on which to try to build a flourishing society. 

Glen Heneck
Cape Town