Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Poor need to be heard rather than spoken for

Steven Friedman, Business Day

HAVE millions of citizens found a voice — or are we about to see the birth of yet another movement that will speak about these citizens but never listen to them?

In theory, the United Front, which was initiated by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), and which met last month to prepare for its launch, should fill an important gap in our politics — the fact that millions have a vote but no voice.

Democracy here is loud and vigorous — but only for the minority who are organised and therefore able to speak. The rest, most of whom live in poverty, are spoken about endlessly but never speak themselves, except perhaps when they vote.

Because democracy works for only some, the pressure on the state to serve those who elected it is much less. That means not only a weaker democracy, but poorer government performance — governments work best when citizens are organised and strong enough to ensure they serve the people. If millions lack a means to force the government to serve them, they will be denied the public service to which democracy entitles them.

If the United Front is to make a difference, this is the problem it needs to address. The real question raised by Numsa’s initiative is not the one on which commentary has fixated — whether it will be a political party or a social movement — but whether it can challenge the voicelessness of most citizens.

A frequent criticism of the labour movement over the past two decades is that it has spoken loudly for people in formal jobs but not those outside them — critics have urged unions to change this by working with social movements who represent people outside the formal workplace. As these movements are often small and weak, unions have also been urged to work to build an organised vehicle for the millions who cannot find work.

If, then, the United Front is to change this society, it will need to accept this challenge by putting down strong roots in the townships and shack settlements where the poor live. This would broaden and deepen democracy as the concerns of people who are ignored between elections become part of the national debate.

Whether that is what it really will achieve is very much in doubt. While it is far too early to judge an organisation that has not yet even been launched, last month’s meeting seemed to bring together familiar individuals and organisations on the left rather than some new voices. Social movements did not flock to the meeting and it is not clear whether the United Front’s organisers have forged links with organisations and people who can bring new energies to the task of offering those millions a voice.

Part of the problem, according to critics, is attitude — the belief by some organised insiders that, because their politics are left-wing, they understand the needs of the poor and can speak for them. Rhodes University academic Richard Pithouse warned after the meeting against seeing "trickle-down" politics as a cure for "trickle-down" economics. Just as conservative economics insists the wealthy’s power automatically benefits the poor, so some on the left believed, he argued, that control of the poor by an academic and activist elite could do the same.

Even if the United Front’s founders do want to reach out to the unorganised poor, success is hardly guaranteed. The world of insiders here — anyone organised enough to be heard — is very different from that of most citizens. Rules, often unspoken, about what can be said and done, are honoured and so those who want to speak can do so.

The reality is very different for millions who lack the resources to be heard — except in street protests which, because they are not launched by democratic organisations, do not change much. Those who the United Front must reach also often find it far more difficult to speak because they are up against local power holders who want to ensure anyone who threatens them remains silent.

So Numsa’s initiative is a test for those insiders who really do want a voice for the poor — it will show whether they are able to move out of the relatively comfortable world of insider politics and reach out to people whose lives are very different from theirs.

A willingness to listen, look and learn will obviously be crucial — just as it was for activists in the early days of the union movement, who had to discover that there was a huge gap between their theories and the lives of working people.

If the United Front fails to do this, it will repeat the key weakness of pro-poor politics here — a tendency to reduce the poor to ideas to be debated rather than people with a voice. And that will ensure continued powerlessness for those who champion change. If it wants to give democracy a much-needed boost, it will have to shrug off the attitudes that have excluded many from the debate and find a way of building an organisation that fits the real world of poor people.