Where Did the Love Go?

By Liepollo Pheko · 6 Aug 2010

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Picture: Sasha Y. Kimel
Picture: Sasha Y. Kimel

Social inclusion is one of those catchall terms that evokes various meanings and conjures up varied visions depending on context. In recent weeks, two things have struck me on the issue of social inclusion. The first is a trip to the United States (US) Social Forum in Detroit. The second was the recent FIFA Soccer World Cup and attendant euphoria.

It was altogether appropriate that the US Social Forum took place in the belly of the proverbial beast bringing together a plethora of American activists from the labour movement, women’s rights and gender activists, the debt and trade movement, migrant organisations, environmental groups, media platforms, academic and progressive think tanks, left leaning donors, black conscious and Africanist representation, students and poets -- a likely fellowship of people under the banner, “Another world is possible and another US is necessary.”

Only in this space could Ghana’s victory over the US during the World Cup be met with a collective roar of delight symbolic and replete with racial, social and economic metaphors.

The Social Forum programmes were instructive and typically overwhelming, including the wonderful Children’s Social Forum. However, for me it did not provide as much insight into what could go wrong with social inclusion rhetoric, as it was a journey through Detroit’s streets and hoods.

Historically, Detroit was the hub of entrepreneurial exploits and in the post-war period grew faster than other economies in the US. It refined the model of manufacturing and production worldwide and made advances in mass marketing, innovation, as well as integrated force and rapid class mobility. Good pay, sound labour relations practises and progressive worker benefits lifted a whole generation into the middle class.

There was a time when Detroit was the envy of the entire economic world. Factories churned out automobiles that people would line up to glimpse on the first day they were rolled into dealerships. This success improved the living standards of the middle class, which spilled over into Ontario where hundreds of supplier plants opened up just to supply the “Big Three,” General Motors (GM), Chrysler and Ford. Detroit even had its very own record company, which paid homage to the city by combining the words “motor” and “town” to create Motown Records.

Now Detroit is almost a wasteland. Endless stories abound of people that have lost their livelihoods due to plant closures. The population shrinks by the thousands every month. Unemployment in Detroit is in double digits. The “Big Three” have responded with finger pointing, trying to lay blame on international labour standards, Japanese automakers, and most shamefully even on their own customers.

However, the big question is why have these factors not affected Honda or Toyota in such a negative way? These two companies have replaced Ford/GM/Chrysler as the darlings of the automotive world. To paraphrase a GM executive, what's good for Toyota is now good for America. Toyota is no longer perceived as the importer of 'cheap eco-boxes’, which is the ‘second car for the wife’, or ‘first car of the university student’. In fact, Toyota’s cars are no longer imported since they’re built in plants located right in the USA and in Canada.

And yet Detroit stands desolate, an echo of its former economic vibrancy and social vigour. African Americans and lower working class white communities primarily inhabit downtown. There is also a burgeoning African immigrant community and this, though still small, is one of the fastest growing groups. Everybody with some loose change seems to have left and the State has responded with ideas as eccentric as turning Detroit into a farm or shifting its demarcation to shrink it into something more manageable and perhaps more palatable to the American dream.

Some commentators suggest that the debate is hypocritical particularly as it relates to the efficacy of cutting taxes or introducing mechanisms to increase social service benefits to a largely impoverished population.

Tax cuts, which were the Bush administration’s calling card mainly created an even bigger negative impact on the wages and social conditions of working and indeed non-working people. 130,000 Michigan residents ran out of regular employment benefits by 2008 and food banks are struggling. Half of all “Big Three” employees in the US are residents of Michigan. There is very little fresh food and expensive corner shops with largely basic and processed foods have supplanted supermarkets.

Depression, unsurprisingly, is reported to be prevalent and higher than the national average.  A significant 1,7 million workers in Michigan suffer from a ‘skills challenge’, which means that their place in the economic environment is truncated by mechanisation, call centres, 22 year old business school graduates and a race and class bias that shows no intent of bridging or reintegrating the traditional workforce back into the economy.

With President Obama’s electoral win in November 2008, it was hoped that his administration would embark on the sort of spirited economic stimulus programmes last seen during the New Deal of the 1930s under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Instead Obama soon made it clear that there would be no shift in domestic or foreign policy and indeed continued pursuing the “War against Terror” whilst the economic holocaust that is Detroit continues unabated. The bailout to the motor industry did nothing to mend the fault lines in Detroit and simply illustrates the corporatist bias of that package.

As I walked and drove through the sometimes gloomy, largely deserted streets of Detroit I wondered how these fault lines could have been ignored in what seems to be an economic Hurricane Katrina. High-rise buildings stand empty, the beautiful Michigan train station has been closed since 1988, and art deco theatres and loft spaces lie empty and heartbroken with neglect.

For every step forward in Detroit and broader Michigan there is an accompanying and significant reversal, which proves quite instructive for the South African context.

This is a place where workplaces were integrated, but living spaces not, where equitable pay and benefits did not lead to gender equity, and where largely white suburban developments are privileged over black urban anchors -- the generation lifted into the middle class is sliding back.

One cannot help a creeping cynicism about the inevitable gentrification and re-development, which will in due course turn Detroit into a snazzy, expensive hub and further marginalise the residents who have lived through its abandonment. It is the story of Tribeca and Harlem in New York, Brixton in London and probably also the story of downtown Johannesburg.

Downtown Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban went through various layers of decay with different responses. Johannesburg, for example, has embarked upon an uneven, incomplete and slightly insincere clean up and rebranded selected parts of the city, converting some buildings into lofts, while other streets and urban dwellers remain desolate. Durban has seemingly abandoned its downtown to its own devices save for some politicised name changing and more sprawling, monotonous malls.

The recent flag waving around the World Cup was advertised as an inclusive occasion to promote economic growth, small business development, foreign investment, tourism and infrastructure -- all the usual distractions to project a typically distorted outcome. South Africa is no more equal now than it was before the World Cup.

The Secretary General of the ANC recently stated that there is no cause for alarm despite news of a million job losses in the past 18 months. Many of the people who should have benefitted from any dividends of the World Cup in terms of business revenue or urban regeneration or more accessible transport find themselves in debt, unsupported and further off the radar. This week Governor of the Reserve Bank, Gill Marcus, announced that interest rates would remain the same -- meaning that entrepreneurs who extended themselves with business development loans will have to pay them back at the same rate.

Just like Detroit, South Africa’s social inequality is clearly drawn along racial lines. The tried, tested and failed theory of ‘trickle down’ as a means of aggressively obviating social divisions remains discredited. Unemployment stand at about 40% and we also have a workforce that has a ‘skills challenge’.  It seems that race, gender and class exceptionalism remain in force everywhere across the globe.

Perhaps another world is indeed possible and another US indeed necessary, but they will not arise using old rhetoric.

Finally, more than this, the prevailing imbalance represents again the failure of the capitalist agenda and the need for the State to bring all its citizens to the centre of the transformative agenda. The story of once prosperous Detroit holds critical lessons and warnings for us regarding our own glaring fault lines.

Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is Executive Director at NGO/think-tank, the Trade Collective and is Africa co-convener of the World Dignity Forum.

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Rory Short
6 Aug

Income Disparities

Prof Richard Wilkinson [check in google scholar] has produced much literature based on official statistics that shows that income disparities in societies determine how socially dysfunctional that society is. For example the higher the income differential in the society the higher the mortality rate in every social grouping within that society. However governments can build a policy structure in societies that promotes greater income equality without interfering with economic freedom.Apparently during the first world war the British government took various steps which reduced the existing income inequalities because they realised that they could hardly be asking people to fight for their country when the people felt they were not getting a fair deal.

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