SUPER SALARY: Chris Wells is Transnet's chief executive. Pic. Raymond Preston. 25/06/2009. © Sunday Times.
SUPER SALARY: Chris Wells is Transnet's chief executive. Pic. Raymond Preston. 25/06/2009. © Sunday Times.

FRUSTRATED as many are over the operational and commercial challenges brought on by the transport workers strike, it is in fact these workers who are challenging the economic elite who are unashamedly enriching themselves at the expense of ordinary working South Africans.

In particular the strikers are challenging the galling entitlement that saw 10percent of Transnet staff cream off 50percent of the parastatal's annual bonus.

Predictably, some mainstream media portrayed union members as irrational and their strategic brinkmanship as irresponsible. In doing so, media coverage has overlooked the deeper political significance of protracted industrial action.

Certain reporters had a field day quoting conservative economist Dawie Roodt as saying that the strikers' actions were "stupid". This kind of shallow commentary is what you get when you divorce analysis of economics from the political concerns of society. It's not just the economy, but the political economy, stupid.

However flawed the Tripartite Alliance might be, it is from within the ranks of organised labour that core questions of political economy are being raised for public debate - quite simply put - who gets access to what resources, on what basis, and are the mechanisms just and equitable? This strike is a call for managerial accountability and continues the struggle for substantive social democracy.

Before liberation the enrichment of one section of society at the expense of the majority was easily linked to the fascism of white supremacist rule. But though ideological apartheid has been defeated, the class structure it created, its economic architecture, remains firmly in place.

Unfortunately, in the glow of our constitutional democracy, we no longer speak of South Africa's class structure as exploitative. These days the excessive "rewarding" of a few is quite simply "competitive market related" pay. Yet, it would seem that the mechanisms for determining the kinds of bonuses paid at Transnet are in the hands of the very same management stratum that benefits disproportionately.

Chief executive Chris Wells. who earns more than half a million rands every month, scored an annual bonus of R2,8 million. Lower level employees on average received R10000 annual bonus. How can such obscene inequality be justified in a public enterprise? Satawu's call for labour to be involved in negotiating bonuses is thus spot on.

Only several weeks ago, South Africans across the board were appalled by the actions of ANC Youth League members who seemed to be more preoccupied with amassing bling than tackling broader social questions of poverty and inequality. As outrageous as the consumption habits of these young politicos are, we must situate their greed within the broader milieu of South Africa's economic elite.

This is the world of overpaid parastatal and corporate executives, unapologetic bread-price fixers, oligopolistic cellular phone service providers, who hamper efforts by government to reduce interconnection fees, and many other players who use their economic dominance to extract as much as they can out of the economy to improve their individual bank balances.

They have no conception of the absolute necessity for the commercial classes to make a serious social pact if we are to stabilise our post-conflict society.

Labour has also challenged those who use their "blackness as a currency to buy into networks of power and influence with the sole purpose of furthering personal ambitions.

When the Black Management Forum (BMF) accused Bobby Godsell of being anti-transformation, Cosatu vigorously disputed their claim. The same BMF has also claimed that the press is disrespectful of the Office of the President, that un-democratically appointed traditional leaders should be accorded more power and that the appointment of a rival black candidate as president of Business Unity South Africa (Busa) was anti-transformation.

These are organisations that appropriate the language of transformation for very narrow political and economic ends. The BMF's pronouncements betray their patriarchal conception of blackness which ultimately consolidates the dominance of a few black men into positions of political and economic influence.

In this way they act differently from the exclusive white corporate that they so despite. Organised labour recognises narrow class interest for what it is, dispensing with the myth of a common blackness when it is clear that workers do not necessarily benefit from the ascendancy of a black managerial class.

As disruptive as the strike has been for those depending on rail networks, there is a longer term issue of a just society that is at stake and it cannot happen without an inclusive economy.

History shows that rapacious elites do not hesitate to use brutal force to protect self-interest.

We must challenge South Africa's 358-year-old culture of aggressive elite accumulation. For history has also shown us that the progressive working class wields the great hammer of numbers and moral authority to break the pernicious effects of elitism.