A Conversation with a Congolese
THREE WEEKS AGO, I moved into a new complex in Northgate, Randburg. Before I moved, I had to find someone who could help me transport my belongings to the new apartment; and luckily, Charles from Limpompo, whose number I had saved on my phone book months back, came into my mind. I called him; but unfortunately he was not available to assist. He then referred me to his long-time colleague, Jacob – a Congolese.
As Jacob and I drove to my new complex, we began to talk about his country. He was amazed how much I know about Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); about their former colonial masters, the political squabbles that resulted to the Congo Crisis in early 1960s; to the death of their first democratically-elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. And of course about Mobuto Sese Seko’s rise to power and his despotic, propagandistic rule from late 1965 till 1997.
For the most of our conversation, he expressed his discontent about his president – Joseph Kabila. He said that ever since he took office in 2001, after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, development has been nowhere in sight in DRC. There are no roads, no railways, no schools; it’s all crumbling. Add to that the rebellions which have occasionally destabilized the country since its independence. I was stunned that he feels life during Mobuto’s rule was better than what it is today. I could sense from his words that he revered him; he saw him a man who had revolutionized the African culture – who served his people, for the good.
What I was then desperate to hear from him were his thoughts about South Africa.
Post-1994, many people across the Sub-Saharan region have flocked into South Africa to search for a better life. The case with our neighbors is even worse. The imprudent policies by Robert Mugabe in the past thirteen years led to the exodus of his citizens. Those with high incomes booked flights and departed to Europe, Australia, America; while those with low incomes crossed the border into South Africa, most illegally.
I remember when I grew up in KwaZulu Natal, some of my mother’s friends were from Mozambique. They were not fluent in Zulu, had different, foreign style of clothing. They would, at least once in a while, tell how it feels like to live in the war zone; how they ended up in South Africa; and how this nation had given them opportunities to live peacefully and send their kids to school.
They had survived a brutal Mozambican civil war, which began two years after Mozambique’s independence from Portugal in 1975. The political movement, Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo), which had liberated Mozambique from its colonialists, was violently opposed by the Mozambique Resistance Movement (Renamo) until the peace accord that was signed in 1992. About one million people lost their lives; about five million were displaced.
Jacob, the Zimbabweans, my mother’s friends, and many others came to this country hoping to find economic opportunities, peace and a chance to nurture their lives.
He spoke positively of South Africa; that it is where he’s found peace, and his transportation business is on the desirable direction.
It’s a peaceful country”, he tells me, “But the problem is that you are always toi-toiying”.
Yes, he was right; in South Africa, strikes are a daily routine. Every year they sweep across the whole country; be it by teachers unions, or miners, or patrol attendants; all demanding higher wages.
This is something they are not used to in other African countries. There are many reasons why it is so. It could be because they are governed by repressive regimes that do not dare allow for any public protests, or perhaps because they understand that strikes come at a huge cost to the worker. They live in very destitute regions, they can not afford to stay at home without any income. Actually, not long ago, the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, included Jacob’s DRC; along with Nigeria, India, China and Bangladesh as the countries with largest number of people living in “extreme poverty”. So that little job they have in these very impoverished countries gives them something to eat, and it’s not guaranteed tomorrow. Of course like any other labor market, skills, experience and education determine the job you are likely to be considered for by various employers.
He said the reason why South Africans strike this much, is because they are privileged. It’s not because they are poor. They are so comfortable that they can do whatever they want with that little job they have. The plight they always refer to when they stop working for weeks does not really exist.
What I liked about the conversation with Jacob was that I was chatting with the person who seemed to have minimal education, is an immigrant who’s find his way through to South Africa. He first started driving for Charles (who I mentioned earlier in my opening paragraph); today, he has his own truck, managing his own business – that’s economic progress.
His words about the occasional strikes in South Africa reinforced my thoughts about these very chaotic events. That the workers who engage on these strikes like to describe themselves as “poor”, when in fact they are not. When on strikes, all the union members want to be viewed as “poor”, yet they earn income. When I see them on television, I see nice jeans and caps; they really don’t strike me as “poor”. Yet their sympathizers like to refer to them as “those who have nothing”. Of course one may say that it depends on how you define “poor”; but if they go as far as saying they “starve”, then that should give you an idea of what they mean by “poor”.
The majority of the South African poor are those who are part of the 25% unemployment rate; those who live in shacks and use backets to release themselves. A street beggar who sleeps in pipes with no home and clothing is, at least in my opinion, poor. And the living conditions of these workers are no way closer to those of the street beggars.
What is very saddening is that most of us forget that these strikes come at a cost. Those plagued by poverty will remain so, as the interests of the smaller groups are met. They won’t find employment, and some among those employed will be laid off, due to the fact that they have forcefully imposed a cost of their choice to the employer.
And the questions I always ask myself are: In a country like South Africa, where the legacy of apartheid still lives on, what is better? Is it for an uneducated, unskilled person to do not work and earn income; or is it to at least wake up in the morning and earn something even though it might not be as high as he wishes? If we are serious about ending poverty, are we doing the right thing by cheering for those who demand wages way above what the employer is willing to pay? Even though it comes at the expense of those who will remain in dire poverty with very minimal chances of finding employment?
I do have answers to the above questions; but of course I’m sure you also have your own way of interpreting this. So do answer them in your own way, we are all welcome to do so.
It’s likely you will disagree with me; you might disagree with Jacob too. But you will not disagree that South Africa has been viewed a peaceful nation, where those who were once hopeless across the Sub-Saharan Africa have had a chance to restore their dreams. Jacob is one of them. They see these union strikes as disruptive, and that the lower class engages on them because of privileges. For the fact that as an immigrant, he started driving for a South African, from there further started his own small similar business with his truck, without any union or organization to protect his rights; I commend him. I know there are many Jacobs out there; may they continue nurturing their lives, in this very beautiful land. And I hope that one day, South Africans will wake up and realize that poverty, must always be a number-one priority; and to significantly reduce it, will not be achieved by forcefully hiking wages for the workers at the expense of the unemployed poor.