Calm down, the poor are not about to revolt

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Worrying that the poor are about to rise up in anger is a product of not thinking straight — or not paying attention. Last week, an International Monetary Fund representative beat a now familiar drum when he warned that failure to achieve more inclusive growth here would threaten social stability. That he caused a stir owes more to the fact that he represents a powerful organisation than to his originality: it has been fashionable for a while to warn that, if we don’t do whatever the speaker wants us to do, we will be engulfed by our own "Arab Spring" or worse, prompted by continuing poverty. How seriously should we take this?

The warnings can mean one of two things — one will never happen, the other has been with us for a long time.

They could mean that the poor will rise up and overthrow the government as protesters did in parts of the Arab world.

But people here have something citizens of those countries did not have when they took to the streets — the vote. Citizens in working democracies don’t need to rise up against their governments because they can vote them out.

Some who peddle the theory that we are headed for an uprising argue that poor people who feel let down by two decades of democracy are too loyal to the African National Congress to vote against it. And so we are asked to believe, illogically, that people who are too loyal to the governing party to vote against it will be willing to overthrow it. As long we have free and fair elections, people will not take to the streets to topple the government. At most, they will become angry enough to vote it out of office.

The other possible meaning is that the poor will take to the streets to voice their displeasure even though they don’t want to overthrow the government. But this "warning" is years too late.

Poor people have been out on the streets for many years. Protest is almost a daily event. And, while it is common to claim that it began a few years ago, a more accurate view is that there has been almost continual protest since the mid-1970s, with some lulls in between.

Why does the mainstream debate become nervous that the poor may take to the streets when they have done so for years? Because the protest is hardly noticed by those in business and the professions. It happens in townships and shack settlements and is a problem for middle-class people only when it spills out onto highways. And so protest is either mentioned to score points, or is ignored.

We are not about to face a revolution.

We will probably continue to experience protest, but the effect on the national conversation will be minimal because it will mainly touch the lives of people whom the debate ignores.

What we may well have much more of is another form of protest that has long been a part of our lives and is fuelled at present by poverty and inequality — strikes. Industrial action by workers usually attracts the attention of those who comment on society because it does affect business and the professions. Over the past year, it has been labour turmoil that has caused alarm, particularly as much of it has been violent.

It has become increasingly clear that strikes are fuelled by our lack of inclusive growth. While it is common to argue that employed workers are labour aristocrats hogging jobs at the expense of the poor, it is becoming increasingly clear that poor people rely on the pay of employed workers.

Recent research suggests that the average pay packet feeds about eight or nine mouths. Far from being indifferent to the poverty of the jobless, workers in formal jobs are directly affected by it.

Poverty does place pressure on labour relations, and bargaining is far more likely to prompt conflict if the gap between what workers need to feed the unemployed who depend on them and what employers are able to pay widens. But, while violent strikes are obviously a problem, we are not on the verge of a catastrophe as workplace conflict spirals out of control. There is a logic to bargaining that ensures clashes are contained by workers’ need to be paid and employers’ need to continue producing goods and services. And there is, of course, nothing new about rough labour relations in this economy.

So we are nowhere near the huge conflict some have been predicting for decades. The great day of reckoning will probably never happen. But poverty continues to make labour relations more difficult and to ensure that the areas in which the poor live are perpetually in turmoil. This may not be about to spell doom but it imposes costs on the society, human and economic, which are both high and avoidable.

We need inclusive growth not because it will prevent something horrible we have yet to experience. We need it because it may enable us to start escaping from patterns we have been living with for decades.

Written by: Steven Friedman

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy. This article was published on Business Day.