The Poor Back in their Place

It’s tough being poor at the best of times. It’s even tougher when your rights to compete for jobs are cut, and when vested interests try stop you running a business.

Stats SA thinks that about 36% of people able to work can’t find any. Starting with the Thabo Mbeki presidency, government has created more than 4 million “work opportunities” – low-paid temporary piece work.

The much praised but seldom-read National Development Plan hopes that 90% of new jobs to 2030 will come from small business. That’s because our post-apartheid law already allows anyone who wants to, to trade willy-nilly. In the 1990s blacks were liberated from a century for being forbidden to trade in “white SA”, and from monopolistic licencing requirements that forbade most competition in “black” areas. The devastating results of old restrictions, coupled with forbidding private property ownership in townships and making “homeland” property subject to traditional and communal control, are to be seen in the grim poverty and lack of choice still found in almost all mainly black areas.

Yet increasingly, SA’s vested interests try to keep it this way. So the Congress of SA Trade Unions threatens “blood in the street” at attempts to have courts look at cosy wage deals that are made between strong unions and established businesses being forced on everyone trying to compete with them bottom-up.

The Global Competitiveness Index puts SA first out of 144 countries in just two areas: auditing and reporting requirements, and “efficacy” of corporate boards. That’s partly because we’ve designed our own private sector circles of hell – King’s one two and three – to impose more “compliance”, “best practice” and “risk management” burdens of a sort laughed off everywhere else.

Meanwhile, a parliament of the people does little to protect us, increasingly giving its legislative function over to bureaucratic regulation. Where the national assembly passed an average 100 laws a year after 1994, now it’s down to 25, letting civil servants decide what else to impose.

Recent restrictive law and regulation narrow private medical practices and health insurance choices; propose advertising bans that favour established products; give new state powers over banks, informal lending, insurance and private pensions; severely restrict the hiring of temps or offering their services; suggest a state right to prohibit business sub-contracting; dilute individual worker representation options in labour disputes; and force a probably unconstitutional extension of racial “representivity” requirements in hiring and promotions.

Even so, that all makes for a Prague Spring of employment freedom now that government has shown its full fist: a Licensing of Business Bill issued last month for which public comment closed quickly. This will, apartheid-style, criminalise any income-generation – right down to street hawking – not licenced by municipalities. They will decide their own criteria; fees are charged; and state officials from traffic cops upward can summon anyone suspected of working to informal meetings; enter any premises without warrant; suspend trading; and confiscate stock without a receipt. Contraventions bring up to 10 years in jail.

Only the small Free Market Foundation has protested this outrage. Those other fighters for the poor and excluded – the Black Management Forum, trade unions, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Black Sash, our mainstream media, the SA Council of Churches – are silent. The poor and desperate are on their own again.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 23 April 2013)