ONGOING SERVICE DELIVERY PROTESTS, the Limpopo textbook saga and, far more graphically, the Marikana tragedy all serve to highlight the social distance that has emerged between South Africa’s poor and the governing political elite, as well as society’s business elite. It even appears that a social chasm has developed between union officials – many of whom are caught up with their own, or with the African National Congress’s (ANC’s), power struggles – and the workers they represent.
It’s a gulf that some are now actively seeking to exploit and one that could even signal something of a tipping point for the ANC – a political unit that has, hitherto, been able to count on almost unwavering electoral support from the very communities that are increasingly showing anger at being let down.
Dealing with this social distance is undeniably difficult, if not downright life threatening, not least because it is being led by forces and formations that have not previously engaged in, or benefited from, processes of social dialogue.
Notwithstanding this reality, the onus is on government and the traditional organised formations within business, labour and civil society to engage these new forces in an effort to rebuild the credibility of social dialogue as a useful instrument for dealing with seemingly intractable problems.
True, this will be as painstaking a process as it was in the early 1990s. But such a conversation is required if we are to restart the process of building social cohesion and arm people with the tools needed to fend off those willing to exploit the current gaps for questionable ends.
There is little question that the root causes are poverty and income inequality – indeed it is common cause that South Africa is now one of the most unequal societies, if not the most unequal society, on the planet. However, dealing with these fundamental ills will involve a number of actions over an extended period.
So what can be done in the short to medium term to show that the main social partners, which have drifted from their bases, are truly alive to the plight of the poor and stand ready to take active steps to deal with the causes of poverty?
Again there are no easy answers. But a good start could be a high-profile social compact around a well-articulated vision for the country – a vision backed by short-term deliverables, particularly in the areas of education, health and welfare, as well as medium- and long-term action plans.
Remarkably, such a vision was released just as the Marikana tragedy was unfolding. Sadly, though, the National Development Plan 2030 (partly because of what took place in the North West province) has, to date, failed to capture the imagination of society. There are also serious questions about whether the plan will ever really receive the support it requires to make an impact, as it does not align neatly with the agendas of those seeking ascendency within the ANC.
Nevertheless, it exists. It is a solid product of both social engagement and empirical research and sets out objectives with which few could have argument: eliminating poverty and materially reducing inequality by 2030.
It would be an opportunity missed if the social partners failed to use the plan to generate consensus on the problems, build momentum around some sound actions to deal with these problems and, most importantly, to reinspire and re-energise South Africa’s fed-up citizenry.