[Marxism] South Africa, a Nation With Sharp Inequality, Considers a Minimum Wage

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 16 09:10:00 MST 2017

NY Times, Feb. 16 2017
South Africa, a Nation With Sharp Inequality, Considers a Minimum Wage

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 
Twecu Crescent.

Sinovuyo Gada’s family moved here in 1998.

“There was no road here, just gravel,” she said. “There were no houses, 
just shacks.”

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 — 
arrived home.

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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