Lucien van der Walt, 2000, “Whose Human Rights? The HRC and Labour,” The Academic Worker, volume 1, number 1.
Written for the short-lived online paper, the Academic Worker, based at the then-University of Durban-Westville. The source, back in the day, was http://www. udw-asa.o rg.za/whose_human_ rights.htm
Get the PDF here.
Whose Human Rights? The HRC and Labour
Lucien van der Walt
The Human Rights Commission has made quite a name for itself lately. Braving the political minefield of race, investigating high-profile racial incidents, not to mention hosting a controversial anti-racism congress … these have all kept the HRC and its head, Barney Pityana, in the public eye.
But the HRC’s brief does not, it seems , include the human rights abuses built into South African capitalism .
Since the ANC-led government announced its neo-liberal macro-economic policy, GEAR in 1996, there have been nearly a million retrenchments as companies restructure (or close) in the face of “world class competition,” as
state-owned enterprises are quietly commercialised, and sold off bit-by-bit to the private sector , as the public sector downsizes, and as municipalities outsource.
Of the human rights abuses arising from this massive job-loss growth – including clear violations of constitutional rights to work , decent living conditions , and dignity- the HRC maintains a dignified silence. And when government announces that it plans to cut back on workers ‘ legal protections even further by revising the already flawed labour laws, the HRC utters not a word.
This silence continues even when the HRC is directly invited to investigate company restructuring.
As the final hour approached for 620 workers facing retrenchment at the University of the Witwatersrand- the result of the university’s Wits 2001 plan, and of GEAR’s commitment to cutting spending on tertiary education- the local Nehawu branch invited the HRC to intervene. After all, Wits 2001 would fire many of Nehawu’s poorly paid, black members, and give their jobs to low-wage, non-union outsourcing companies at half the wages and with no benefits.
The HRC responded with a curt note acknowledging receipt of the request, and even deigned to hold to short meeting with union activists. But there were, the union was told, no real grounds for an investigation. Maybe later …
So, on June 30, 2000, most of the Wits workers lost their jobs. The union lost 400 members. And Wits brought in outsourced labour at R1200 a month.
Perhaps if the events had been more spectacular- a farmer shooting a trespasser, maybe, or security guards painting a shoplifter- then there would have been more to whet the HRC’s appetite. Not to mention political mileage . And opportunities to point to the “enemies of change,” against whom “we” have to defend “our” new democracy and government.
But the Wits retrenchments were perfectly legal and did not involve any overt violence. On the contrary, they follow directly from official government policy and the capitalist system we live under. And they did not affect anyone “important,” like professionals , or accountants, or empowerment capitalists.
They were , in other words, simply “business as usual” in South African capitalism . And bus1ness, as usual, is built on retrenchments, low wages , outsourcing , labour market flexibility , and union busting. None of which the HRC can classify as human rights violations without condemning capitalism and the government. Which is precisely what the HRC won’t do.