Our economy needs to be freed so that everybody can get a proper, useful, productive job.

Amid the disastrous unemployment in South Africa, it is a disturbing fact, known by everyone but seldom mentioned, that there is a huge army of South Africans doing jobs that are completely unnecessary. Were all these people to lose their jobs, no employers would notice except for a big savings in salaries.

I recently visited a lady friend in Cape Town. She lives alone and has inherited a house. With the house comes a domestic worker and a gardener. Both come to her once a week. Both are unnecessary. She can easily do her own housework and could easily use gardening services once every three months to tidy up her small garden. She keeps them out of a sense of responsibility. Their employment relies on her kindness not her need.

Visiting Gauteng and Mpumalanga last month, I stayed with friends in large houses and a small farm. It was the same story. They all keep domestic workers and labourers they do not need, and they support their children and families on their properties, feeding them, housing them, helping with their illness and their children’s education. Some even feel bound to pay pensions for them when they retire. The employees have become dependants.

If any of these friends were to fall on hard times (quite likely now) or if the labour laws were further tightened to make it too expensive and dangerous to employ domestic workers, all these people would lose their jobs and their accommodation.

I have worked for factories in England and South Africa. In England, the artisans – boilermakers, fitters and electricians – all prepare, carry and clean their own tools. In South Africa, the artisans, usually white, have labourers, usually black, to fetch, carry and clean for them.

At a mill in KZN in the 1990s, we needed a large new tank for a corrosive liquid. It was not complicated but needed to be made to a high standard, with correct nozzle orientations. It was so large it had to be constructed on site. The mill went out to tender locally, asking the bidder, for security reasons, to state the size of the workforce he would be bringing onto site. There were several bidders, all charging about R2 million and bringing about 20 workers. Just out of curiosity, the mill decided to offer a foreign company, Swedish, a chance to bid. It bid R1 million and said it would use 3 workers. The mill was amazed but decided to go with the Swedes. Sure enough, 3 ordinary looking Swedish workers came on site with ordinary looking tools and equipment, and without fuss constructed the tank perfectly and in short time.

In my street in Cape Town, on rubbish collection day, a company called Kleenbin, comes around with a bakkie and cleaning equipment to clean the emptied bins. A white man, looking very important, sits in the cab while a black man cleans the bin. Personally, I never use Kleenbin because I am able to clean my own bin in a few minutes and my bin never gets dirty anyway because I put all my rubbish in plastic bags.

In England, Europe and the US, it is so easy, so quick, so luxurious to fill your own car with petrol at a filling station. You simply drive up to a pump, fill up your tank, swipe a credit car and drive off in 3 minutes. In South Africa it can take up to 20 minutes. You have to wait patiently at a petrol pump until an attendant, cheerful or surly, deigns to come to the pump and do what you could do yourself. It is especially difficult in my case since my car is small, old and dilapidated (a 1984 Suzuki SJ410) and often I have to wait while the attendants serve big expensive cars who come after me. I’d pay extra if I could serve myself.

All these people employed in these unnecessary jobs are lucky that their employers are not like me. I am selfish, mean-minded and self-reliant. I find the master-servant relationship abhorrent. I hate ‘servants’ making my bed or washing my clothes; I find it an invasion of my privacy. I want to do everything for myself. I have never employed a domestic worker and never will. If I had my way, all petrol stations would be free to offer self-service, and all artisans would have to fetch and clean their own tools as in the productive economies of Europe, Japan and the US.

A friend once told me that anybody who can afford to employ a ‘servant’ had a moral duty to do so. Wilbur Smith, who keeps a large entourage of staff, agrees. I don’t. I should much rather our economy be freed so that everybody can get a proper, useful, productive job and that the role of the ‘servant’ be relegated to the bad old past.

Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal. 

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the IRR.


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