Public service & administration minister Senzo Mchunu. Picture: SOWETAN
Public service & administration minister Senzo Mchunu. Picture: SOWETAN

When the old Marxist theorists came up with the concept of the “aristocracy of labour”, it was not in anticipation of conditions in SA almost 200 years later.

The theoretical foundations are not necessarily applicable either — what they had in mind was the different treatment of workers across borders undermining prospects of global solidarity — though the term itself might be a useful description of what is happening in SA at the moment.

Of course academics and specialists on the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin can have their own debate about the “correct” use of the term. What we are concerned about is the literal meaning and what it says about privilege and narrow self-interest.

It’s been a week since the start of the lockdown announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in an attempt to stem the spread of Covid-19. The virus has already devastated huge parts of the world and ground the global economy to a halt.

It was never a debate that the economic consequences were going to be devastating and we are already seeing that in SA and elsewhere. Many businesses will simply not emerge from this and analysts are predicting that about 1-million jobs could be lost, more than during the great financial crisis of 2008-2009.

Spain, whose death toll has passed 10,000, is reported to have already shed almost 900,000 jobs since its stay-at-home order from mid-March, while in the US, claims for unemployment benefits are surging to record levels. British Airways was set to suspend about 36,000 workers.

This is the plight of workers in private sectors across the world, in rich and poor countries.

In this environment where so many people find themselves in such precarious conditions, not knowing if they will have a job at all, the utterances among those representing SA’s public sector unions, encouraged by public service & administration minister Senzo Mchunu, might seem more than tone deaf.   

Among the many unwise things to happen under the watch of former president Jacob Zuma, an administration for whom the word “sustainable” didn’t exist, the government agreed to a three-year inflation-busting wage settlement that the country simply cannot afford.

That trend started back in 2008, with public servants’ salaries growing at about 40% above inflation over 12 years. 

Even before the Moody’s Investors Service downgrade last week and long before the coronavirus had entered popular discourse, finance minister Tito Mboweni made it clear that this was unaffordable and sought changes in his budget.

Things have since become worse. The economy could shrink in 2020 by anything between 1% and 5%, with some economists saying even the upper end of that range could be optimistic. This has horrific implications for state finances. Moody’s says the budget deficit could reach 8.5% in 2020 while BNP Paribas sees a record 9.1%.

We are fast approaching the point where the government might not be able to borrow in financial markets and running to the IMF is no longer a taboo subject.

In the midst of this, you have workers across the land who are either being fired or told to take unpaid leave, with no way of knowing if they will have jobs to come back to at the end of this crisis — if indeed there is an end anytime soon.

How galling it must be for them to read about public servants who are willing to go to war because they have been offered a pay increase of just 4.4%. Millions of workers across the country will be lucky just to have a job — any job.

Of course an argument can also be made that the government should go ahead and just pay the increases. This is not the time you want unhappy civil servants, especially the ones in the forefront of the coronavirus struggle. But nobody is arguing that the public sector should not be paid and the country can’t escape the simple fact that it can’t afford the increases.  

Solidarity has become one of the most used words of the past week. Not for our labour aristocrats, whose narrow interest trumps everything.

When history looks back on this period, which SA Revenue Service commissioner Edward Kieswetter rightly called the “most threatening existential risk of our generation”, it will not look kindly on our labour aristocrats.