MCEBO DLAMINI: On the indignity of black labour


Go to any taxi rank in South Africa and you are surely going to see black dishonor. The indignity of black labor is extremely stark. If it is not old women selling fruits and veggies just to take home a profit of less than R50; it is young people selling sweets and cigarettes, every day without any hope of getting out of the cycle of stagnancy. At night, women of all shapes and sizes line up and show their thighs, soliciting anyone who has R30 and willing to get down. Not only this, _abomacala _are all over willing to lend a hand just so that they stay alive, smoke and on a good day, buy a cold beverage. The fact that this is a constant throughout the country is testimony that no part of South Africa is safe from oppression. While places such as Sandton and Umhlanga are exceptions, the reality is that most of South Africa is mired in poverty. This is evident in the kinds of jobs that black people are subjected to.

The definition of labour is broad and can almost apply to any job. It is therefore important for us to specify what kind of labour we are talking about. Some forms of labour are exploitative and some are undignified. This is to say some jobs are not worth being done by any self-respecting human being. Some forms of labour are dishonouring and often it is black people who are subjected to these kinds of labour. It is not that they do these jobs out of love but because they are left with no options, it is either they starve to death or they do degrading labour. This truth we must never be afraid of speaking. We must not continue to celebrate black people who are subjected to inhumane working conditions and euphemise it as "hustling". If we do this, we move further from finding solutions to this problem.

The informal business sector suffers a lot from this problem, mainly because it is usually unregulated. It is in this sector that you see black people work in ways that are extremely abnormal. Think of taxi drivers who wake up in the break of dawn, work until late at night just to earn below R400 a week, and street vendors who work in unhygienic spaces and are vulnerable to all sorts of harassment. Black people have been working in these conditions for a long time now and we rarely have conversations about it and what it means.

Here, I am not necessarily advocating for government intervention but I am making these examples to demonstrate how we have normalised abnormal forms of labour; how we witness them every day and nothing within us is disturbed. We continue normally as if things are supposed to be this way. It is almost as if we are unable to imagine black people doing anything else.

Of course it is easy for one to be tempted to ask "who must do these kinds of jobs?". The answer is quite simple: anyone who wants to do them may but they must not be thrust into them by conditions beyond their control. When they are forced to do this work because there simply is nothing else, it still does not mean that they forfeit their right to human dignity. But much more importantly, most people who these degrading jobs do so because there exists a structure that has denied them opportunities and access to other kinds of labour, leaving them with no options.

It is this structure that condemns black people to these jobs that must be dismantled. So when you see a grandmother selling mopane worms at the market, know that there is something completely amiss about that situation. Perhaps recognising this could lead us to thinking collectively about what to do and how to approach undignified and degrading labour.

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