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  • Red Alert: Taking forward the struggle for sustainable livelihoods

Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

Over the past weekend, the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) hosted an important conference. The theme was �Mobilising our People for Sustainable Livelihoods�. The focus of the conference was to develop a community-based and community-driven strategy to create sustainable livelihoods for the workers and the poor of our country. The conference was historic in that it was the first major conference convened by the Community Constituency of NEDLAC. The event was attended by all components of the Community Constituency, and thus there was representation from women, the disabled, youth, co-operatives and the Financial Sector Campaign Coalition.

The conference was opened by the Executive Director of NEDLAC, Herbert Mkhize. Ms Vuyelwa Nhlapo, Deputy Director General in the Department of Social Development, presented the keynote address on behalf of the Cde Zola Skweyiya, Minister of Social Development. Cde Sizwe Shezi, overall Convenor of the Community Constituency, chaired the conference. The event was attended by about 150 delegates from all over the country, and was sponsored and supported by the National Development Agency (NDA) and the National Department of Social Development.

What was deeply disturbing was the absence of representatives of business at a conference discussing such a vitally important question and in a country with such high levels of unemployment and poverty. Business� absence was strongly condemned by delegates. The fact that business was not there shows the extent to which South African capitalism uses the worst practices of �robber barons,� who are only narrowly concerned about their profits and not about the broader social problems of society. To them, poverty and unemployment need to be tackled through their �corporate social responsibility� programmes, in a welfarist and not transformative manner. For the past 11 years, our capitalist class has been spoiled by the creation of a market friendly society, whose economic policies have prioritised the business interests of the capitalist class over the challenge of eradicating poverty and creating unemployment. This underscores the absolute necessity of escalating mass struggles against capital, and the importance of the current COSATU jobs and poverty campaign and mass action.

Also noticeable by their complete absence were the media, including the public broadcaster. Interestingly, earlier in the week, coverage of the conference of the Black Management Forum was very prominent. This conference was discussing the important question of the role of the black middle class in tackling poverty in South Africa. Yet when direct representatives of the workers and the poor were meeting to discuss poverty eradication strategies, the media did not even bother to make an appearance. Perhaps poverty eradication is seen by capital and its media institutions as something that needs to be tackled from the standpoint and perspectives of the rich, not from the standpoint of the poor.

Failure by business to attend and the lack of media coverage happened despite the fact that the conference was held over the World Food Day weekend. It is interesting and sad to note that World Food Day also received scant coverage in the South African media.

The discussions and resolutions of this conference were foregrounded by a discussion document, �Conceptual understandings of sustainable livelihoods� (www.nedlac.org.za) which was the main discussion document for the conference. This paper, amongst other things, argues that:

The overriding priority of sustainable development and livelihoods is to combat poverty and the central causes of poverty amongst the poor are unemployment, underemployment and low earnings. Hence central to the debate of sustainable development or livelihoods is the need to interrogate our country�s employment generation strategy which is in turn linked to the achievement of a sustainable growth and development path that creates permanent and quality jobs, which in turn will contribute to improving the quality of life of the working poor and their families.

Most significantly, the paper argues that sustainable livelihoods should not just be seen as a complementary strategy located on the margins of the capitalist economy, but should centrally include the transformation of the mainstream economy, especially the current accumulation regime which is shedding jobs, not creating enough quality jobs, and shutting down opportunities for sustainable livelihoods.

The paper also notes that whilst government has embarked on numerous initiatives to create sustainable livelihoods (eg. Local Integrated Development Plans, Expanded Public Works Programmes, National Skills Development Strategy, Community Development Workers, Youth and Women�s Development programmes, and social security system based on monthly social grants), these tend to be implemented parallel to each other, in silos. Conference therefore identified these interventions as important platforms to build sustainable livelihoods and communities, while emphasising the need for an overarching co-ordinated strategy for them to have maximum impact. For example, ways need to be found for portions of social grants to be linked to building capacity for local economic development, and for a relationship between recipients of social grants and expanded public works programmes.

An important debate that also informed deliberations at the conference was that on the relationship between job creation and sustainable livelihoods for those outside formal employment. This is a relationship that can be fraught with tensions if not handled correctly, both at a theoretical and at a practical level. For instance, the discourse of �sustainable livelihoods� can have the consequence of watering down the struggle for creating quality jobs and focus mainly on the marginalised, retrenched workers, whilst leaving the dominant accumulation regime unchallenged. At the same time, to focus on the struggle for quality jobs to the exclusion of the reality that many of our people are unemployed and we are unlikely to reach full employment anytime soon, may lead to the abandonment of the legitimate struggle to create opportunities for livelihoods of our people outside the mainstream capitalist economy.

It was from this debate that Conference resolved that the struggle for job creation and sustainable livelihoods is a single struggle, and that transformation of the �informal� economy must simultaneously involve the struggle for the transformation of the mainstream economy itself. To this end, Conference was critical of the characterisation of the South African economy as �two economies�. Instead, Conference strongly argued that our economy is a single economy, but like all capitalist economies, it has dualistic poles, that of the rich and that of the poor; as one delegate persuasively argued, these poles are �two sides of the same coin and not two separate coins�. Flowing from this, therefore, the struggle for sustainable livelihoods and communities is a struggle for a holistic transformation of our economy, as what happens in one pole is dialectically linked to what happens in another pole.

The conference also reflected on the role of communities in the implementation of the resolutions of the Growth and Development Summit which was held at NEDLAC in June 2003. Concern was expressed that many of the resolutions of that summit remain unimplemented and business seems to be the most resistant in this regard. An example was made that practically nothing has been done on one of the key resolutions of that summit, which was a commitment to invest 5% of all investible income in our economy into infrastructure and labour intensive programmes in order to create jobs. This was identified by Conference as one of the key campaigns that labour and community can jointly undertake to pressurise especially private capital to deliver against.

Against this backdrop, Conference focused on intense discussions and took resolutions on the following key areas:

� Urban and peri-urban development
� Rural transformation, including land and agrarian reform
� Growth and sustainable employment
� Technology and innovation for sustainable livelihoods
� Human resources development and sustainable livelihoods
� Access to affordable finance for sustainable livelihoods

In discussions during the conference, lots of emphasis was placed on the strategic and practical imperative to empower women and recognise and strengthen their already enormous role in promoting sustainable livelihoods. Conference noted that a large number of women are involved in a range of economic activities, including survivalist economic activities. It is women who normally bear most of the brunt from poverty, as they have to provide unpaid labour to sustain their families and dependents. They are the ones who have to deal with those with AIDS and those facing starvation. Women play a leading role in burial societies, stokvels and a range of other initiatives to build sustainable livelihoods. Therefore, Conference resolved that at the centre of any successful strategy for sustainable livelihoods and communities must be women and the transformation of gender relations in society. Communities have to mobilise to ensure that women do play a central role in sustainable livelihoods.

Conference also received a report on the amounts that are in government�s hands for procurement. Government departments, municipalities and state-owned enterprises have hundreds of billions of rands for annual procurement of goods and services. A way needs to be found to ensure that these funds are used to support sustainable livelihoods and communities. Concern was expressed that the primary consideration in government�s procurement strategies are the BEE Codes of Good Practice, which tend to narrowly focus on big BEE deals and share-ownership schemes, without adequate attention to building SMMEs, co-operatives and other community empowerment initiatives. Conference resolved, amongst other things, to embark on earnest mobilisation to engage government at all levels around developmental procurement to support sustainable livelihoods and communities.

Underpinning this approach to a state procurement strategy, Conference was emphasising the need for a more developmental and interventionist state to drive economic transformation and build sustainable livelihoods and communities.

The SACP fully supports this important resolution, and we are of the view that as we move towards local government elections, all progressive forces need to engage the ANC to commit, in its election manifesto, to a certain percentage of procurement funds being set aside for SMMEs, co-operatives and other truly broad-based community economic initiatives.

Perhaps one of the most important resolutions taken at Conference was that for its resolutions to be implemented, intensified organisation and mobilisation is of absolute necessity. In particular, Conference committed itself to strengthening the alliance with labour organisations, through concrete struggles and mobilisation. This commitment will go a long way towards effectively connecting social dialogue to mass mobilisation. One of the major weaknesses of the community constituency at NEDLAC, with perhaps the exception of the Financial Sector Campaign Coalition, is that it has primarily been limited to dialogue with no mass activism buttressing such dialogue. Social dialogue and mass struggle are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin. In fact, social dialogue can only reach meaningful agreements and produce positive outcomes for the workers and the poor, only if driven through mass struggles and activism.

The South African Communist Party wishes to congratulate the NEDLAC Community Constituency for convening such an important conference and for the very important resolutions adopted. As a communist party in a country with such high levels of unemployment and poverty, we commit ourselves to fight side by side with our people and communities to realise sustainable livelihoods and communities. We hope the Conference resolutions will be implemented without delay, for the sake of the workers and the poor of our country.