Mabuse Mpe, National Chairperson of the YCLSA
The Covid-19 pandemic is causing major changes today to the political economy, which will continue to constrict opportunities for the majority of the people of the world to lift their standard of living, <!– more–>
while the richest 1% of the world get richer. The pandemic will lead to the expansion of the gap between the poorest 56% and the richest 1%.
This article looks at the current urgencies brought about by the pandemic and poses questions about the role of the working-class youth in mitigating the impacts of the pandemic. The article focuses mainly on income inequality as compared to other forms of inequality (e.g. education, health etc.). It argues that the pandemic, including the lockdown measures will lead to increases in inequality as a result of drastic destabilisation to world economies.
In South Africa the impact will be enormous, given that the economy has long since been teetering on the brink of recession, shedding jobs and sending many into destitution and further poverty.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has found that global income inequality has been on a steady rise:
“We find that the wealthiest 61 million individuals (or one percent of the global population) had the same amount of income as the poorest 3.5 billion (or 56 percent) as of 2007” (Global Inequality: Beyond the Bottom Billion – A Rapid Review of Income Distribution in 141 Countries, UNICEF, 2011, p.20).
The same study notes:
Moving up the distribution pyramid, children and youth do not fare much better: more than two-thirds of the world’s youth have access to less than 20 percent of global wealth, with 86 percent of all young people living on about one-third of world income. For the just over 400 million youth who are fortunate enough to rank among families or situations atop the distribution pyramid, however, opportunities abound with more than 60 percent of global income within their reach.
The socio-economic constraints faced by many young people and the inequality perpetuated by these restraints, are embedded in the very relations of unequal ownership and increasing exclusion. As the increasing inequality has come to define humanity, it is clear that social action must be strengthened to confront capitalism.
Humanity in the rush for profits at all costs has caused major alterations to climatic conditions with major risks to food security and environmental health. The United Nations warns that “climate change can generate a vicious cycle of increasing poverty and vulnerability, worsening inequality and the already precarious situation of many disadvantaged groups” (World Social Report 2020, p.100).
The SACP declared that we must make “green issues … a question of the quality of everyone’s lives” (African Communist, 1st Quarter, 1991, p.60). It remains important therefore that all efforts towards environmental improvement must be grounded in all our attempts to develop society and build a more equitable economy, and equally toughen regulations against pollution by capital and the state.
We cannot discuss South African working class youth matters outside of a discussion of world context of the pandemic. The results of war and strife globally impact on the standard of living of youth living in poverty as they plunge them deeper into poverty. These youth find themselves in the crossfire of wars they never caused, wars that have produced enormous dislocation of multitudes of young people, many orphaned, and living in foreign countries as refugees with little opportunities for personal advancement. Today as the Covid-19 pandemic rages on across the world, the conditions faced by refugees, especially children and youth, have become even grimmer, with a further decline in the standard of living and an increased threat to life.
The Covid-19 pandemic has removed many youth from the streets of protest where they have found expression for their demands for a better world.
In a press release on the pandemic and its impacts on “the global world of work” (March 18, 2020 (https://www.ILO.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS738742/lang–en/index.htm)), the ILO warned that “the effects will be far-reaching, pushing millions of people into unemployment, underemployment and working poverty”.The ILO states that, across the word, full or partial lockdown measures are now affecting almost 2.7 billion workers, representing around 81 per cent of the world’s workforce. Thre has been an exposure of the fault lines in health systems of even the most adanced capitalist systems.
The lockdown has meant closure of non-essential industries and “businesses across a range of economic sectors are facing catastrophic losses, which threaten their operations and solvency, especially among smaller enterprises, while millions of workers are vulnerable to income loss and layoffs” the ILO stated (7 April 2020). Particular industries identified by the ILO include “retail trade, accommodation and food services, and manufacturing”, which employ about 1.25 billion workers and represent almost 38% of the global workforce. Such is the devastation wrought by the pandemic already.
South Africa gives a healthy impression of a resilient people, unified under very trying times, radiating immense confidence, with a strong belief that a solution shall be found and lives will be saved sooner. This attitude has not been unseated by the challenging state of our economy, or stifled by visibly slow global growth and South Africa’s own historical and structural inadequacies. While there is ample support for the lockdown as the most viable means to ensure social distancing and containing the spread across all sectors of society, we are however also fully aware of the challenges deriving from the lockdown.
South Africa’s growth forecast is now revised downward, with a major decline in the economy predicted for the quarters ahead and industries such as construction, mining, manufacturing, food and beverages etc. have been just as hard hit. It is important to note the anomaly of reporting, where only reports on the formal sector have circulated to describe the impacts of the pandemic.
While the formal sector is accounted for both in formal statistics and perhaps in aid packages lined up to ameliorate the economic impacts of the pandemic, such targeting has been poor as regards the informal sector.
Yet the informal sector is home to just under million people who are today forced to stay at home under lockdown and yet remain unaccounted for in most emergency relief or stimulus packages. According to Eddie Rakabe (Informal business relief isn’t hitting the mark, Fin24, 20 April 2020): “People in this sector do not have the privilege of legal employment contracts, insurance for loss of income or social security, social networks and saving buffers to protect themselves against unforeseen economic risks”
The broader crisis has already struck serious blows at the economic and labour markets, and thus bound to worsen the very conditions of growing inequality. Low income employment in the formal sector, gives the bottom rungs of the working-class similar disadvantage especially in the lack of savings, health insurance and similar facilities, causing major distress under existing conditions of job uncertainty.
The challenges faced on the economy and health have presented the youth with a much complex post-pandemic global environment that will demand non-stop youth activism across the world, especially led by working class youth, because they are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of not only the current pandemic, but also the ongoing economic slump that has engulfed most of the world since 2008.
Cooperation and mobilisation among young people living in poverty across national, regional and global environments must be strengthened and spurred on by clever usage of technology, especially the Internet of Things, which has provided young people with opportunities to build a widespread progressive consciousness, mobilisation, communication and organization around challenges faced by young people living in poverty and despotic rule.
To a degree, the lockdown measures have brought their own contradictions, with some certainly invoking authoritarianism as seen in some parts of the world, including South Africa, with security forces harassing, brutalising and terrorising people seen to be contravening lockdown measures, severely restricting freedoms of movement or association. On the other hand, we have seen that organised young people have not adequately participated in the design of measures of the lockdown or those meant for economic relief.
It will be important that organised youth among the working class participate in both the design and the execution of recovery planning. They must point to the correction of challenges produced by neo-liberal planning, which to a great extent is bound to further restrict public expenditure in the post-pandemic period.
There’s growing evidence that today’s young adults are strongly dissatisfied with fundamental aspects of political and economic systems globally. In South Africa the mass of our youth population suffers major challenges of rising unemployment, dehumanising poverty and increasing inequality, interpersonal violence, social and economic exclusion, and alienation, all of which continue to rise due to capitalism and neo-liberal policies. According to Statistics South Africa youth aged 15-24 years are the most vulnerable in the South African labour market as their unemployment rate was 55, 2% in the 1st quarter of 2019. Among graduates in this age group, the unemployment rate was 31, 0% during this period compared to 19,5% in the 4th quarter of 2018.
These conditions require fresh ideas to defeat the alienation of the youth by the capitalist system. The youth, led by working class youth and informed by working class ideology must be in forefront, not in only the generation of revolutionary ideas, but in physical organisation around issues affecting young people.
Today we need also to ask South African working-class youth what kind of vehicle is needed for the mobilisation of the youth towards a socialist cause and the resolution of the challenges affecting the youth most adversely, including the emancipation and empowerment of women.
The ultimate capability and success of any country lies in its determined youth – a youth that is purposeful, united and objective in the analysis of its strengths and weakness. Will we be able to build a revolutionary working-class consciousness under conditions in which more than 50% of working age youth linger outside of the environment of work? How do we work around this glaring contradiction?
As more than half of working age youth find themselves in conditions of widespread unemployment and drawn largely into civil mass protests, are we able to harness these platforms to become bedrocks to sharpen the mobilisation, organisation and ideological capacities of youth to gain greater leverage in our broader struggles against the ills of capitalism?
Because this will be based on learning and praxis it is equally important that a revolutionary culture of learning is cultivated even under the discouraging conditions faced by working class youth. To the extent that learning is critical in achieving these aims, it will be important that experienced cadres within the SACP and the Alliance form part of the revolutionary educational environment through a healthy intergenerational mix of cadres committed to building a formidable working-class movement, while understanding the inherent contradictions, both antagonistic and non-antagonistic that will develop in such interactions.
When the youth is revolutionised, organised and united, there is no course of struggle that will fail.
Cde Mpe is the National Chairperson of the 5th National Committee of the YCLSA
1. https://www.unicef.org2. African Communist (AC), 1st Quarter, 1991, p.60 and 61)3. (March 18, 2020 (https://www.ILO.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS738742/lang–…)4. Eddie Rakabe in Informal business relief isn’t hitting the mark (Fin24) 20 April 20205. www.stasa.gov.za