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Don’t forget the poor

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Among the undoubted successes and achievements of post-apartheid South Africa there have been some disturbing trends. One of the most troubling has again been in the news: abject poverty has increased dramatically in the last 10 years.

Among the undoubted successes and achievements of post-apartheid South Africa there have been some disturbing trends. One of the most troubling has again been in the news: abject poverty has increased dramatically in the last ten years. According to the Institute of Race Relations, in 1996 just under two million people existed on less than a dollar (R7) a day, the accepted international measure of acute economic deprivation. By 2005, it had doubled to over four million.

Even many of those in formal employment live in poverty. The strike currently under way at the Moses Mabhida stadium, Durban’s 2010 Soccer World Cup venue, illustrates this. The project’s budget is a staggering R2,6 billion, but some of the workers employed by main contractors earn as little as R12 an hour, or about R2 200 a month. Others, working for sub-contractors, take home half as much since they do not fall under the sectoral wage agreement. In the year 2005–6, pre-tax profits in the construction industry increased by a reported 36% and the remuneration of executive directors by nearly 40%.

Strikers are demanding a monthly project bonus of R1 500, although this would hardly raise basic wages beyond paltry levels. Their action highlights one of the stark contrasts of contemporary South Africa – projects involving massive finance, and for some enormous personal gain, alongside appalling socio-economic deprivation even for those in relatively secure employment. In the case of the Durban stadium, there is compelling evidence that basic safety standards for workers have been woefully neglected by companies involved in mega contracts. In August, Department of Labour inspectors identified life-threatening violations that caused a temporary site closure.

Amid the hype surrounding the 2010 Soccer World Cup, a crucial question is this: how will it help to improve the plight of millions of desperately poor people? Unless this can be answered in a practical way that sees some demonstrable long-term positive result, the event which has seized the imagination of South Africans will prove to be simply a passing entertainment. During the apartheid years, Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee wrote of sport as the opium of the masses and the stadium as a palace of dreams – a temporary diversion from profound, unavoidable issues. Is history to be repeated?

The construction workers in Durban, and those elsewhere now preparing to join in a secondary strike at other stadia and on the Gautrain project, pose a challenge of fundamental moral and political importance. Local World Cup organisers have airily dismissed their industrial action as typical trade union opportunism. Thoughtful South Africans will have a more subtle view based on economic justice.