[Marxism] South Africa, a Nation With Sharp Inequality, Considers a Minimum Wage
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Thu Feb 16 09:10:00 MST 2017
NY Times, Feb. 16 2017
South Africa, a Nation With Sharp Inequality, Considers a Minimum Wage
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
KHAYELITSHA, South Africa — He works in AIDS prevention and his wife
gets the occasional gig at a local supermarket. But neither job is
regular enough for a “proper home,” Zwai Lugogo says, so his family
lives in a shack here in Cape Town’s largest black township, making do
with thin walls of painted metal.
Many of his neighbors — housekeepers, factory workers, nurse’s aides —
are in the same predicament, working hard at jobs available to black
South Africans, but barely scraping by.
“That money that we’re getting from work is just not enough to be able
to take care of our families,” said Mr. Lugogo, 34, as neighborhood
children, including his 3-year-old son, ran around their narrow street
recently. “We need an intervention.”
South Africa is now considering one. Faced with rising discontent over
the economy among black voters, the government is weighing something
more common in developed economies: a national minimum wage.
Late last year, a government panel recommended about $260 a month, or
about $1.50 an hour — a small amount even in South Africa, but close to
the median income in a country where the official unemployment rate is
27 percent and nearly half the population lives in poverty.
Last week, the nation’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, endorsed the
panel’s recommendation, vowing that the minimum wage would be in effect
by May 2018. But in such a sluggish economy, opponents contend that the
effort would destroy jobs, especially for the least skilled.
Supporters counter that a minimum wage is the only way to reduce poverty
in one of the world’s most unequal societies, helping to dismantle an
apartheid-era system designed to provide cheap black labor for an
economy dominated by the white minority.
In few places do divisions run as deep as in South Africa. Wealthy
communities with living standards equal to those in the West and
inhabited disproportionately by whites rub shoulders uneasily with
desperately poor townships. A government survey released in January
found that black South Africans, who make up 80 percent of the
population, earned only one-fifth of what whites did in 2015.
Some smaller African economies, like those of Cameroon, Ghana and Ivory
Coast, already have a national minimum wage. But only a small percentage
of their workers are in the formal economy and therefore eligible for
the minimum, experts say. And even for them, the rules tend not to be
A national minimum wage would be more meaningful in a big economy like
South Africa’s, experts say, because the formal work force is much
larger, around 80 percent of all workers. Millions of people would be
Still, South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa’s most advanced economy, is
enduring the same forces as the rest of the continent. It is not growing
fast enough to absorb its rapidly growing population, which is leaving
rural areas to look for work in places like Khayelitsha, one of the
country’s biggest townships with about 400,000 people.
There is added urgency for the government to act: The African National
Congress, which helped liberate black South Africans from white-minority
rule and has governed the country since 1994, is still stinging from
losing most of the nation’s biggest cities in elections last July.
The party could once bank on loyal support from the nation’s black
majority. But corruption and economic stagnation for millions of people
have steadily eroded that support over the years, resulting in the
party’s worst showing in elections since the end of apartheid in 1994.
The frustrations are evident in Khayelitsha. It is roughly situated
between two of South Africa’s richest areas: the city of Cape Town and
the famed wine country of Stellenbosch. Established in 1983 by the
apartheid government, Khayelitsha, which means new home in Xhosa, still
provides many of the workers for both communities.
On weekday mornings, soon after daybreak, the men and women of
Khayelitsha leave their neighborhoods and walk to the nearest train or
bus station. For many, the commute — a legacy of apartheid-era urban
planning to separate white and black areas — takes up to a couple of
hours each way.
Many on Mr. Lugogo’s street, known as Twecu Crescent, said their commute
cost them a quarter or a third of their monthly wages. For black South
Africans nationwide, the cost of taxis, buses and other passenger road
transportation accounts for 5.4 percent of their expenses, compared with
0.2 percent for whites, who tend to own cars.
A bus called the Golden Arrow stopped not far from Twecu Crescent with a
few passengers already on board. It made several stops in Khayelitsha
and, after passing a densely packed stretch of shanties, some
precariously stacked two high, it pulled out of the township on its way
toward Cape Town. Headed to residential areas, the bus transported
mostly women who worked in malls or in homes as housekeepers.
Along the way, in a scene repeated in many buses that morning, a woman,
in this instance Julia Xakata, began preaching and leading the others in
song. Some sang softly while checking their cellphones.
Sitting near the front of the bus next to a window, Makatiso Sekhamane
moved her lips while knitting a black cap.
“I knit whenever I have some free time,” Ms. Sekhamane, 47, said,
explaining that she usually completed a cap in two days and sold it for
about $4. “It’s something.”
The caps supplemented the $400 a month she made working six days a week
cleaning white people’s homes. Her husband earned maybe $150 repairing
refrigerators. Their combined income supports five children and two
grandchildren at home.
Much of the discussion surrounding a national minimum wage — led by
government, business, labor and academics — is expected to focus on the
amount. According to the panel’s report, a monthly minimum wage of about
$260 “would maximize benefits to the poor and minimize any possible”
disincentives to work.
The amount proposed by the panel is below the working poverty line of
$325 a month, but because the median income of South African workers is
only $280 a month, the minimum would help reduce inequality, the panel said.
On Twecu Crescent, many of the employed already earn the proposed
minimum, or more. But their wages are far below the salaries earned by
the few residents in the nicest homes — $600 a month for a government
worker, $900 a month for a young police officer.
The proposed minimum “is not enough,” said Nombeko Mndangaso, who earns
about $165 a month working five hours a day as a cleaner in a nursing
home. “It won’t make a difference.”
With her husband, who makes $245 a month as a full-time security guard,
they earn more than $400 a month. But with rent, transportation,
electricity and two daughters, there is little left at the end of the
month. A minimum wage of “at least” $340 a month per person, she said,
would improve her family’s situation.
Sparsely populated a generation ago, Twecu Crescent now has little or no
space between homes. Many homeowners earn extra income by renting out
shacks on their property to the endless stream of new arrivals to
On Twecu Crescent, a short street divided into two blocks, the handful
of sturdily built homes belonging to the upwardly mobile stand out.
There is, in a two-story house, the woman who works at a bank; down the
street, the man employed by the government power utility; and, on the
corner, the police officer whose still unfinished house has a new red
Peugeot in the driveway and a low wall with spikes to discourage people
from sitting on it.
The street is otherwise lined with more modest homes under corrugated
roof sheets, inhabited by those making a third or half of what those in
the nicer homes do, and shacks of varying quality occupied by those
worse off. Discolored concrete blocks are neatly piled in many front
yards, a sign of the slow and unsteady pace of progress for most on
Sinovuyo Gada’s family moved here in 1998.
“There was no road here, just gravel,” she said. “There were no houses,
Her father, a welder, and her mother, who sells homemade food from a
shack in their front yard, built the house in which she and her brother
grew up. After finishing high school in 2012, she sent out her résumé to
countless companies for three years before finally securing a part-time
job through a friend.
She now works four days a week at a supermarket at a mall in Cape Town,
earning $60 a week. About 30 percent of that, or $18, goes to
transportation. Ms. Gada, 22, is part of the “born-free” generation of
black South Africans who came of age after apartheid’s fall. But like
many in her cohort, she was deeply dissatisfied with the pace of change
in her family’s circumstances.
“The apartheid, it’s still there,” she said.
The wages she earned from the job that took so long in finding would do
little to improve her situation, she said. She did not believe that a
monthly minimum of $260 would help. Employers control the balance of
power over people like her, she said.
“They think sometimes we are desperate,” she said. “Yes, we are
desperate, because we have families and children to take care of.”
It was early evening, and, all over Khayelitsha, men and women started
coming home, most of them walking from bus stops to their streets, their
gait slower than in the morning.
On Twecu Crescent, girls sat on a corner playing a game of rocks. A boy
pushing an old tire with a stick cast a long shadow up the street.
The woman who was knitting on the bus, Ms. Sekhamane — better known on
Twecu Crescent as Mama Kakiso, or the mother of Kakiso, her son —
She had had a busy day and, arriving late at the bus stop, had found no
available seats on the Golden Arrow. She took a taxi instead, paying an
amount equivalent to half the price of one of her black caps.
“I’m going to wash my body and sleep now,” Mama Kakiso said as she
slipped into her home. “I can’t do anything.”
Follow Norimitsu Onishi on Twitter @onishinyt.
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