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Publication Details

Reference
Burger, Vanessa  (2013) Social justice, human rights sacrificed at the altar of debt. Eye on Civil Society : -.

Summary
MILLIONS of South Africans are increasingly forced to buy basic necessities – food, electricity, water, transport and school fees – on credit. And the government has become addicted to international credit for megaprojects, such as the Medupi Power Station for which we got the World Bank’s largest-ever loan, Gauteng’s e-tolls privatised highway and the proposed R250 billion Durban port and petrochemical expansion, to sustain its plutocracy and access to the tenderpreneurial trough.

While Eskom chief executive Brian Dames pulls a whopping R8.2 million salary, up 91 percent from 2010 (We pay), and is about due for another increase, Medupi workers strike repeatedly for a living wage.

They are criticised because of penalties incurred by the resulting construction delays, yet workers are struggling to meet ballooning electricity tariffs, up nearly 150 percent these last five years.

And is it so wrong for miners currently earning R4 000 a month to demand a 100 percent increase (little more than Dames’s pay hike) when mine bosses win salary and perks in a year what it would take miners 11 lifetimes to earn? The garnishee orders on Marikana miners’ pay slips left them so desperate last August that they willingly faced police bullets.
Debt became a human rights issue. Even Trevor Manuel acknowledges the unsecured credit system is out of control and threatens us all. African Bank lost 40 percent of its value in a recent run, as investors punished its vast unsecured loan portfolio.

The costs of debt mount. For example, because we are locked into the completion of Medupi, we cannot explore cleaner, and ultimately much less costly, renewable energy. One Australian corporation, BHP Billiton, is the only winner, with a guaranteed low price thanks to an apartheid-era deal. To keep that price low since 1994, the firm hired a half a dozen top South African politicians and regulators.
Yet the government insists it’s our patriotic duty to shoulder the debt of yet more ill-conceived projects.

Durban’s port work by Transnet is being financed by a $5bn (R49bn) loan from the Chinese government made during the Brics summit, which will increase our country’s $140bn foreign debt substantially. Five years ago that debt was only $72bn.

The cruel joke here will be on the Clairwood and Merebank communities adversely affected by the project itself – who will thereby be indebted for their own destruction.

Debt must be serviced before we eat, before we educate our kids. People now slog – if they can get work – not for a better life, but merely to pay the interest on their outstanding interest. Social justice and human rights are becoming progressively superfluous.

Reputable credit providers’ strong-arm debt recovery tactics often transcend criminal law. If banks’ copious threatening telephone calls to customers in arrears were made by an ex-lover, it would constitute harassment and charges could be laid. But it’s a bank, you owe them your soul, so anything goes.

Despite so many South Africans suffering indebtedness, there is considerable social stigma attached to it: the assumption is that we choose to spend more than we can afford, and therefore we have some character flaw and should be punished.

Yet we have some of the highest interest rates and bank charges (and thus bank profits) in the world. The compound interest attached to often recklessly granted, unsecured loans can be a real killer.

Credit providers irrationally load penalties and increase interest rates until there is no hope of repayment.

Once blacklisted, one cannot sign a rental agreement, and employment is often sabotaged. So when one is down, they intend to keep one there.

This can have major implications on social stability. When a whole community is similarly afflicted, as at Marikana, such sustained humiliation, desperation and frustration can be explosive.

Runaway debt becomes a living hell, as everything must be sacrificed to feed the debt monster. You have surrendered your rights. Also like slavery, with this loss of dignity comes the devaluation of inestimable assets such as kindness, honesty and integrity.

By having to attach a financial value to all things to justify their currency we become reduced, demoralised and persecuted – and the consequences of this enforced moral insolvency are spiralling crime, social disintegration and corruption.

Although the spectre of debt stalks one’s every waking moment, it is not the fear of debt itself that wakes one, cold and sweating from restless dreams. It is the blind panic of being unable to feed the debt that leaves one powerless and exhausted.

So the 1946 Merle Travis classic on debt bondage has as much relevance today…

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store”


When a city such as Detroit – once the world’s motor car capital – declares insolvency we should know our collective default is long overdue. Similarly oppressed, workers in the US and Europe are organising new “debt strike” movements in civil society. Although “bond boycotts” were common here 25 years ago when fly-by-night developers built fall-apart township houses, we now need to renew efforts to change power relations between debtor and creditor.

Vanessa Burger is a Dennis Brutus Community Scholar at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.

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