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still from Iseeyou
Simon Gush, 2013, South Africa, HD, 14 minutes
Courtesy the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

A Visible Problem

Simon Gush

Post-work is here. Not the relief from work through automation. Nor the arrival of an abundance of leisure. It is not a utopian society beyond work, where work has been deliberately pushed from the center. Yet work is in retreat. It cannot justifiably occupy the place it once held structurally or in our imaginations. Post-work is here and by here I mean geographically, in South Africa, and temporally now.

Unemployable

The crisis of unemployment is a much-debated topic in South Africa. Officially, the unemployment rate is 27.7% and the expanded unemployment rate, which includes those who have given up on looking for work, is 36.4%.[1] For those who have formal employment, work is likely to be outsourced and precarious; for those outside of waged work, it is largely intermittent and informal, if it is experienced at all. Yet despite its increasing absence, work dominates the foundations of our society.

The symbolic function of a job within society has not diminished. It is still the means by which the majority of South Africans imagine themselves, alongside their dreams and ambitions. Work plays a central role in subjectivity, how we see ourselves and our place in society. The struggle against unemployment, and for the improvement of living conditions, is often articulated through the fight for decent work.

Ideologically, South Africa can be described as what labor theorist Kathi Weeks calls a work society.[2] Weeks suggests that the role of work is not simply constrained to the means by which income is distributed, but that it is a fundamental structuring principle:

Work is the primary means by which individuals are integrated not only into the economic system, but also into social, political, and familial modes of cooperation. That individuals should work is fundamental to the basic social contract; indeed, working is part of what is supposed to transform subjects into the independent individuals of the liberal imaginary, and for that reason, is treated as a basic obligation of citizenship.[3] 

When the role of work as the primary means of access to citizenship is conjoined with its lack, the naturalization of the idea that full employment is possible—and that unemployment is subject to change—is propagated. We are asked to believe that it is possible for economic growth to outstrip the influx of job seekers.[4] The rationalization of government policy depends on it.

Although it can be argued that these processes began earlier, the post-apartheid government began pursuing an aggressive neoliberal policy under Nelson Mandela’s presidency in 1996, known as the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR).[5] This represented the formalization of a contradiction as official policy. GEAR brought both the casualization and flexibilization of the labor market and the reliance on business to solve the unemployment crisis, resulting in a steady decline of work. It further accelerated the privatization of basic services, necessitating that their access was through payment.[6] Because this was set against the backdrop of a policy that deemphasized social grants,[7] work became the primary (and the only official) form of the distribution of income and, as such, access.

This centralization of work did not begin with neoliberalization, however; rather, it is a continuation and development of colonial and apartheid mobilizations of forms of (Protestant) work ethic. This is important because of the racial dimension of the problem. What the post-apartheid government is attempting to address is not only a class issue, but also a racial one: unemployment is overwhelmingly and disproportionately experienced by people of color.

It can further be argued that specifically neoliberal privatization is a continuation of colonial primitive accumulation. The dispossession of the commons and its concentration in the hands of a few, which previously took the form of land and resources, now includes basic services (water, electricity, education, and health care). This is the creation of a frontier where those on the outside are in excess of the labor needs of capital. Ahmed Veriava argues that “primitive accumulation in postcolonial societies often proceeds with large sections of those who lose their subsistence not being integrated into (formal) waged work.”[8] 

It is apparent that the situation in South Africa is beyond the point where those outside of employment cannot be adequately described as a “reserve labor army,” as it is too far beyond the structurally necessary levels that capitalism notoriously requires for its smooth functioning. The ongoing removal of the means of subsistence by colonial and now neoliberal systems proceeds here in a manner that has produced a surplus population that is not intended to be integrated. In this sense, those on the outside are not unemployed but unemployable, subject to a closed system.

Unrepresentable

I have been repeatedly asking the question of what images of work make visible, or rather what work do they do? There is a sense of ideological collaboration within the tradition of the representation of work. A symmetry exists in the way images act in the production of visibilities and invisibilities and how ideology foregrounds a set of ideas. Importantly, in order to naturalize these ideas, it must make others invisible.

I began my research into the history of the representation of work within the South African context with the film Iseeyou (2013). I was attempting to answer the question of why, in 1964, the apartheid government (sponsored by the Chamber of Mines),[9] had built a monument to workers of color.[10] This led me to an intriguing problematic around the aesthetics of the monument: its heroic pose and realism closely mirror Soviet socialist realism and are not what one would expect from a notoriously anti-communist government. I was interested to explore what might be common between these conceptions of work and what was being mobilized in both these contexts.

It was unexpected but not contradictory that apartheid would celebrate work. When looked at closely, the monument reveals itself as not just a glorification of work but of work ethic. This is emphasized through the moralistic suggestion of its heroic depiction. I make the argument in a follow-up film, Calvin and Holiday (2014), that the religious base of apartheid—a localized form of Calvinism—influenced labor policy. The Calvinist work ethic purports that work is morally uplifting, particularly emphasizing that work is valuable in and of itself. Whether self-consciously or not, this responded to the ongoing struggle for labor and further legitimized the processes of dispossession that sought to force communities into work.

Throughout the twentieth century the mines, South Africa’s major industry, struggled to source sufficient workers from within the borders of the country. The resistance of local communities meant that a program of migrant labor was developed, drawing workers from a number of neighboring countries to deal with the problem. The Chamber of Mines was central to this process. Their film and television unit produced a number of scripted “documentaries” which not only legitimized the process to outsiders, but also aimed to address potential new workers. These films often tell the story of how beneficial mining work can be to individuals and communities,[11] often emphasizing how the money earned can be used to improve lives back home. The work depicted in these films is shown as hard but also heroic, masculine, and ennobling.

Similar narratives regularly emerge in a variety of local feature films and documentaries. This is the case even in those that are not intended as propaganda and in some notionally critical of apartheid, or at least of its race relations. In the fiction films Dingaka (1964) and Ipi Tombi (filmed in 1992, released 1997), for example, the lead characters go to the mines to elude the danger in the “rural” home. In both films, the mines provide a safe space of escape. Although the city itself, Johannesburg, is depicted as fraught with corruption and villainous intent, it is ultimately the modern influence of the society of work that proves decisive in solving the original problem, when the lead character returns to their village. While the work depicted in these films is hard, there is a joy in its execution and it is always accompanied by song.

The late 1970s in South Africa saw a noticeable increase in labor unrest and, in 1979, recommendations by the Wiehahn Commission to parliament resulted in the legalization of black and non-racial trade unions.[12] The result was that unions became one of the primary means of mobilization and resistance, as well as the dissemination of information and political education. Destabilizing production and contesting the conditions of the workplace was a way to undermine the economic base of apartheid.

Image production that followed often documented and critiqued the conditions of work. The 1986 traveling exhibition of photographs and accompanying book The Cordoned Heart, which looks at poverty in South Africa from a number angles, provides a cross-section of how lens-based artists were approaching work. Consisting of short essays from photographers who were members of, or loosely associated with, the Afrapix collective,[13] the book shows photographs of migration, living conditions, workers’ hostels, transport conditions, the Bantustans, forced removals, union meetings, and the workers themselves. Here, the apartheid regime was substantially critiqued for its treatment of work and workers.

The 1992 documentary film The Colour of Gold, directed by Don Edkins and Mike Schlömer, follows in the above tradition. The film is unusual as it shows work in the mines with a critical eye, using moving images. Although the film is largely set in the hostels around the mines, dealing more explicitly with the living and social conditions of the workers, a short section in an early part of the film shows the acts of work. In this film, work is cramped, hot, and uncomfortable. It could hardly be described as heroic. Shadows lurk in underground scenes in the mines, often creeping into the foreground and enveloping the subjects. The shadows act on the images as a presence of the danger inherent in the work itself. By contrast, underground work in the Chamber of Mines films is always brightly lit.

The transition from apartheid brought with it new challenges for the unions. A consequence of the sanctions was that industries were protected and the lifting of sanctions in the early nineties exposed many sectors, especially manufacturing, to competition through cheap imports. The liberalization of these labor markets, alongside the cutting of tariffs, saw a significant collapse in jobs, especially in the textile and footwear industries.[14] 

In this context of declining jobs the unions, in particular COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions),[15] began the process of formalizing their hard-won gains in legislation. However, the formal recognition of the unions came with regulatory frameworks. In addition to the limits on industrial action, the processes for the organization of work sites were unsuited to the changing nature of work.[16] The problem of how to cope with new forms of work, a challenging experience for unions internationally—jobs that are often temporary, flexible, or outsourced through labor brokers—was exacerbated.

For COSATU, the unionization of the civil service gave the short-term illusion of growth, while membership was often declining in other industries. Protection of the gains within the work site is often positioned as one side of a false dichotomy, where more jobs are predicated on less controls, lower pay, and further flexibilization. The losing battle against market and labor liberalization has taken its toll and distracted from the problem of who unions now represent. While the unions are very much aware of the need for new ways of organization and new forms of representation that can help incorporate workers outside of formal employment into their ranks, solutions have yet to emerge. For this to happen, work cannot remain central to the identity of labor. It cannot be allowed to mediate access or identity, socially or structurally.

The problem of imagining work has to begin now, from the space outside of work. It is a problem that might symmetrically be labored on by image producers and labor organizations alike, by rethinking ideas of productivity, acknowledging and rendering visible unvalued forms of labor that have been marginalized or emerged in the space outside. It is the urgent task of clearing the space into which new forms of representation and, more importantly, self-representation might emerge. The center of gravity has already shifted.

Simon Gush is an artist, filmmaker, and researcher based in Johannesburg. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, supported by the National Research Foundation and the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.

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Notes

  1. Statistics South Africa, Quarterly Labour Force Survey – Quarter 1, 2017. See http://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0211/P02111stQuarter2017.pdf.

  2. Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham, NC, 2011), 5. Weeks is referring specifically to the United States; her statement, however, is applicable to the South African context.

  3. Weeks 2011, 7.

  4. This influx is both a result of labor migration and of youth entering the job market.

  5. Prishani Naidoo and Ahmed Veriava, Re-membering Movements: Trade Unions and New Social Movements in Neoliberal South Africa(Durban, University of KwaZulu Natal, Research and Education in Development, Research Report 28, 2005), 6. See http://ccs.ukzn.ac.za/files/RReport_28.pdf [Simon, this link doesn’t seem to work for me—please verify]

  6. Naidoo and Veriava 2005, 6.

  7. Naidoo and Veriava 2005, 6.

  8. Ahmed Veriava, The Two Economies, Primitive Accumulation, and the Government of the State, or, Reflecting on the Politics of the Governed from South Africa, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (forthcoming).

  9. The Chamber of Mines, South Africa, was formed in 1887 (then the Transvaal Chamber of Mines) by the owners of the mines on the Witwatersrand. Its functions include lobbying government around policy. Importantly, it formed Rand (Witwatersrand) Native Labour Association (WNLA), later The Employment Bureau Africa (TEBA), in 19897 [Simon, 1989 or 1987? Verify year] to regulate recruitment of workers for the mines. Through WNLA it was begun actively recruiting workers from as far north as Congo.

  10. This is the Miners’ Monument, located outside the Civic Centre in Braamfontein. Made by David McGregor, it supposedly depicts “a typical underground team of 1936” (according to its plaque). The team is made up of two black miners accompanied by a white miner. Unsurprisingly, the white miner seems to be in position of authority, guiding the two black miners; these two latter figures are depicted shirtless and muscular, representing a more physical idea of labor.

  11. For example: “Native Recruiting Corporation” (c. 1930s), “Pondo Story” (1948), and more recently, “Beyond the Gate” (2017).

  12. Sakhela Buhlungu, A Paradox of Victory: COSATU and the Democratic Transformation in South Africa (Scottsville, 2010), 55.

  13. A collective of documentary photographers who took a explicitly politicized stance in their work. It was established by photographers and political activists in 1982. See http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/afrapix.

  14. Naidoo and Veriava 2005, 7.

  15. The Congress of South African Trade Unions is an umbrella organization representing a number of trade unions in different industries. Formed in 1985, COSATU was the largest and most dominant union body in the country until recent events destabilized its position. COSATU has been in alliance with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) since their unbanning in 1989.

  16. Naidoo and Veriava 2005, 8.