The struggle for a Basic Income Grant [Interview with Khokhoma Motsi]
Interview with Khokhoma Motsi | Amandla 77 | August September 2021
Amandla!: The Covid-19 pandemic has been so devastating on the lives of the mass of poor people, coming as it has on top of a long economic and social crisis. The state and capital have been unwilling to devote real resources to addressing the plight of the mass of poor people. As a leader of the Assembly of the Unemployed, how do you politically see the demand for a Basic Income Grant.
Khokhoma Motsi: Actually, our plight as the unemployed did not start with the pandemic. It started a long time ago (1996) when government gave into the pressure of the financiers, the domestic and foreign capitalists. They wanted foreign investors at all costs. So they obeyed their demands for deregulation, tax cuts and opening up of markets. And of course, especially, austerity policies. This has led to the economic and social crisis we now face. This is the crisis caused by capitalism, imperialism and neocolonialism.
There is no political will to deal with this crisis. The leading party in government wants to create a “market-friendly” environment to build a black capitalist class. But even here their policies don’t work. They are too afraid to redistribute the wealth from big business to provide the resources for black capitalism to develop. So, those who want to be black capitalists have to loot the state in order to get wealth so they can invest. We can see the result: fierce competition, factionalism and fights over control of state resources. A ruling party being eaten by infighting and a state riddled with corruption. Vital services, which the poor depend on, collapse because the state doesn’t function. At local, provincial and national level, it is mostly in a state of paralysis.
So capital has withdrawn from production and the economy has deindustrialised. On top of that, they have failed to redistribute land to the landless and the education system is failing. All of this has given us one of the world’s highest rates of unemployment. Generations of youth leave school without hope of a job. And we sit with literally millions who are over 35 who have never worked, except informally – if they’re lucky.
So a Basic Income Grant is absolutely essential to assist the unemployed between 18-59 years who are not being assisted by anybody during this time of economic crisis. We have 11 million plus people who are unemployed and the number is rising every year.
Politically, if you are having 11 million unemployed people in a country like South Africa, you are sitting on a time bomb. These people are going to bed hungry. They have become angry, disillusioned and disappointed.
When you give the unemployed a grant of R1,500 per month, you are doing two things at the same time: you are relieving the tremendous day-to-day suffering of many people, and you are creating a buying power of 11 million people. There will be a demand for especially consumer goods. And that will stimulate the economy. If you make bread, you will suddenly need to hire many more workers to meet the increased demand. Our economy will improve.
BIG should not just be a demand of the unemployed. It should be one of the top demands of workers Most workers support about eight family members who are unemployed. A BIG will take the burden off the shoulders of those who are working.
A!: A number of NGOs have been lobbying for the BIG. It appears as if government might concede a grant aimed at the unemployed building on the R350 social relief of distress grant. What is the strategy of BUM / Assembly of the Unemployed with regard to the BIG and what role do you see these NGOs playing?
KM: NGOs can play a supporting role, especially through their capacity for assisting the unemployed with research, publications, supporting litigation and of course money. But they must not come into this struggle to take it over for their own benefit. They must build solidarity with the unemployed. We, as unemployed, need to speak and act for ourselves. If we play a leading role in this struggle, we will be stronger in the fight for decent work and a fundamentally transformed economy. Currently, many NGOs lobby government in their own name. They don’t recognise the grassroots forces. But it is our name they use to take up the demand.
We are not saying NGOs do not have the right to take up issues. But we have a movement. We have the Assembly of the Unemployed, the Cry of the Xcluded and others representing popular forces. So we don’t understand why they are not more supportive and take their mandate from us. Take for example the issue of the amount of the grant. You will have some NGOs advocating R500 or R800 because they believe that is reasonable. We demand R1,500. That is a demand which challenges government’s entire economic policy with regard to budget ceiling, taxing the rich etc. And then the NGOs become wary and opportunistic. Quite frankly, reformism is not going to work with this government.
A!: The new Minister of Finance, ex-leader of NUMSA and COSATU, says he would prefer to focus on upskilling youth and facilitating job opportunities. What do you make of that?
KM: It is unfortunate to have the ANC as the governing party. Every five years they change the economic policy and that in itself talks volumes. You cannot create jobs in a situation where austerity is the major player.
We, as the BUM/AoU are not sure if the government will concede to this demand. But we need a mass-based and militant campaign which will make an impact and force the government to implement our demand. Remember, now we have Godongwana as Finance Minister, he is talking another language of the mainstream -he says that grants create dependency. It is better to support job creation. Godongwana is promoting skills training for the youth. The new minister is really a joke. We have an experience of those who came before him in terms of job creation. If he was really a representative of the working class movement, he should change the austerity policies immediately when assuming office; but he can’t do that because he is captured by the system.
We know there are no jobs because capital is not investing and the state refuses to drive job creation through. For example, we could create climate jobs as we move to low carbon, such as in expanding public transport, socially owned renewable energy and retrofitting buildings to be energy efficient. It comes back to not having a proper economic policy.
The youth of this country are facing dark days ahead because of the ANC and all its ministers. The youth are losing hope, dignity and their humanity. By maintaining the grip of neoliberalism, Godongwana will contribute to deepening all the social problems of mass unemployment such as crime, substance abuse, teenage pregnancies, violence against women and children. A BIG of R1,500 would go some way to preventing these anti-social tendencies. Godongwana’s government refuses to see this. They are so blinded by the demands of the non-existent investors.
A!: Can you explain what is the Botshabelo Unemployed Movement (BUM) and why you formed the Assembly of the Unemployed? And can you share with our readers the challenges with organising the unemployed?
KM: BUM is a social movement formed in 1999. It is a membership-based organisation, fighting against the causes and impacts of mass unemployment. We fight for decent free essential services and for the dignity of our people, who are marginalised and excluded.
We came together with other movements around the country fighting unemployment and realised we needed a broad social movement of the unemployed. Hence we formed the Assembly of the Unemployed. We did this as we saw how reactionary forces like the DA and Herman Mashaba – representatives of business – were using the unemployed as a battering ram to attack organised labour. So the AoU is the mother body of all the unemployed movements.
Organising the unemployed is not like organising workers at the factory floor. Remember, the unemployed are hassling on a daily basis to put food on the table. Just holding a meeting is a mammoth task. So we undertake various programmes and projects which talk to the immediate needs of the unemployed, whether it is skills training, career guidance for youth, promoting of food gardens and even organising community kitchens. We undertake political education programmes so we enhance our consciousness to understand the roots of our problem and to fight for system change. We believe we are our own liberators.
BUM/AoU is mobilising across the board in that we need to build this campaign from street to street, township to township. village to village and town to town. We are working to unite the working class behind this campaign, and the progressive NGOs and academics.
Interview with Khokhoma Motsico-founder of Botshabelo Unemployed Movement (BUM). The BUM is part of the Assembly of the Unemployed