There’s been a lot of middle-class hand-wringing about recent events, from the toppling of Rhodes to the latest outbreak of xenophobic attacks. But complacent South Africans who manage to drive the latest cars, yet don’t pay workers a living wage, have some soul-searching to do. HAROON MEER argues that when the revolution materialises, we will absolutely deserve it.
The combination of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign and the recent eruption of xenophobic violence has left many South Africans following the news with trepidation. The romantics say that this casts a shadow across our fabled rainbow, while those who left our shores many years ago join those who probably should have, to remind us, once again, that we are five minutes from becoming Zimbabwe. Letters have been written to singers, editors, presidents and kings with a fairly predictable theme: “First Rhodes, then foreigners, then us? We are good people and we don’t deserve this!”
Except we do.
Let me be very clear: I don’t want “bad stuff” to happen. I certainly never want to be on the other end of an angry mob, but I’m writing today because I’m amazed that the mob hasn’t risen up yet, and will totally understand it when (or if) they do. Because we will absolutely deserve it.
Nobody ever thinks they deserve it, but here are some “truth razors” for us to swallow: Start a business in the UK or Australia and you will be forced to pay your staff a living wage. If your business plan can’t generate a profit while being fair to your people, then your business fails. You need another business or another business plan. If you can’t afford to have a full-time maid, you either earn more or you learn to do your own dishes. But not here and not us.
Apartheid got us hooked on the idea of a workforce that can be paid below the poverty line, and it’s a habit we have not managed to shake. From factories, to shopping centres, from Sydenham to Sandton, we, the middle class, have largely been dining on the backs of a workforce that can never break free. This would be bad enough if we were just breaking even, but we aren’t. We are managing the expensive school fees and we are managing the fine German automobiles. We are managing the latest cellphones and we are managing satellite TV. Even though these are considered luxuries in most of Europe, our businesses seem to manage them. What seems harder to manage somehow, is paying people who work for us a living wage.
I know the arguments that will rapidly follow – how times are tough and how we “at least provide employment to those who will take it”, but this is an insidious piece of self-deception.
If our businesses cannot run while paying a fair wage, then we don’t have a viable business. If we can’t pay a fair wage but can keep driving BMWs, then we don’t have good souls. We have become so immune to the plight of the poor in our country, that we discuss the oppression of taxes and the tyranny of tolls while being waited on hand and foot by an underpaid blue-collar class that can never escape their “station”. They are invisible to us, until the problems in their ghettos overflow into our suburbs.
It’s been 20 years since “liberation” and we still have maids who live like indentured slaves. Twenty years and yet shops and factories still thrive on un-unionised, barely paid workers.
These people have been patient for decades under apartheid and have been patient for the two decades since… This patience cannot last forever. Sooner or later the poorest among us are going to realise that nobody has their interests at heart. They are going to realise that the rest of us have gotten so used to slave labour that we won’t give up the newest iPhone to put an end to it. They will rise up, and they will be right to, because as the past 20 years have shown, if it were up to us, we would maintain the status quo. They will demand a revolution, and history will show that only a revolution was able to reset the table. We certainly were not getting around to it.
Can we do anything to stop this impending revolution? Maybe. There are a host of things we could and should be doing, but it’s entirely possible that it’s too little, too late. I don’t know if the revolution can be stopped once the writing is on the wall, but looking around as one of the privileged ones I can tell you that we would absolutely deserve it.