On Wednesday thousands of workers took part in a national strike called by all the country’s trade unions federations.
In Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth demands were handed over to government representatives. All the big federations participated in the strike, including the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) and the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU).
Some of their demands related to Covid-19 corruption, the failing economy, gender-based violence, and the government’s reneging on a wage agreement which means workers may not receive a salary increase in the next financial year.
In Port Elizabeth, about 500 people gathered outside the city hall. The mood was one of anger. One of the ANC leaders in the region took to the podium but during his speech, protesters kept shouting “Thief! Thief! Thief!” and booed him off stage.
In Johannesburg, over a few hundred people protested next to the Gauteng Legislature. Members of the National Union of MetalWorkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU) also joined the day of action.
Some protesters held signs that read: “You looted R5-billion and told us to dance to Jerusalema” and “You can’t plan for a future if there isn’t one.”
Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of SAFTU, said the decision to freeze wages was a declaration of war not only on nurses who assisted the country through the worst of the Coronavirus pandemic, but also on the working class.
Treasurer of YNITU, Portia Maskeo, said health workers were tired of “being played for a fool by the government.” She said that some health workers had died from Covid because of inadequate protective equipment.
In a significant moment SAFTU and COSATU members marched in central Johannesburg in a separate protest over corruption and job losses. But later SAFTU members decided to join the COSATU march. This is the first time such joint action took place since the split in COSATU which led to the formation of SAFTU. It showed the natural instinct of workers to unite despite all attempts to divide the workers.
In Cape Town, a few hundred SAFTU workers marched from the Civic Centre to Parliament. Some of their demands called for safe trains, increased social grants, the introduction of a basic income grant and that a moratorium be placed on job losses.“The Covid-19 pandemic has starkly exposed South Africa’s inequalities at a time our country was already falling apart. We will not just fold our arms while our economy crumbles and communities suffer,” said SAFTU deputy general secretary Moleko Phakedi.
In Durban, scores of workers marched from Curries Fountain to the Durban Central police station to hand over their memorandum. The protest was joined by members from Port Shepstone, Pietermaritzburg, Empangeni, Richards Bay, and Mandini. Other protests were also held in different parts of the province including Newcastle.
COSATU’s Kwazulu-Natal general secretary Edwin Mkhize said their picket aimed to shine a light on corruption, job losses and the high rate of gender-based violence. “We are happy that there are some individuals who have been arrested [for corruption] but we are calling for more arrests. People who stole from the government during the lockdown have to be brought to book,” he said. Mkhize said they would also give petitions to the provincial premier, Business Chamber, Labour Department and CCMA.
Unions from across all sectors took part, led by the Cosatu unions. The protest is against rabbid corruption in the public and private sectors, job losses and wage cuts, lack of safe public transport and Gender Based Violence. The federation is also demanding the immediate decrease of the minibus taxi capacity for Covid-19 safety reasons.
At the recent National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) general secretary, Vavi submitted a notice to the council, which allows workers to embark on strike action to further their socioeconomic position. SAFTU is not a part of Nedlac but its presence at the council was in anticipation of a spout of mass action planned from October onwards, but beginning with the Cosatu general strike on 7 October.
South African workers face the steepest decline in living standards in recent memory. This was before Covid-19. Even before the pandemic workers were facing deepening unemployment, casualisation and attacks on the right to strike. All of this played out during a time of splits and crises in the trade union movement.
Now all the major trade union federations, including Cosatu, Saftu, Fedusa and Nactu organised a one-day mobilistion. In the past such a move would have shaken the country to its foundation. But the organisation of the planned action has been lukewarm to say the least. The mobilisation was hardly noticed by the broad layers of workers. In fact, the event is not even called a strike but is described in very vague terms such as a ‘stay-away or ‘planned action’.
The union leaders had no appetite for this protest action. Cosatu’s general Bheki Ntshalintshali used the pandemic as an excuse not to plan any mass action:
“Normally when Cosatu goes on strike, workers want to be physically there. They want to go on marches. It is difficult this year, because they can’t be together. We were worried the virus would spread. That is why it is a lukewarm kind of mobilistion.”
But the crisis forced them to make some sort of gesture. “Our issue is that we can’t postpone this. As Cosatu, we need to be engaging in it, “ he told the Mail & Guardian.
The current, global economic crisis is being compared by some to the great depression of the 1930s, but is arguably more devastating. Job losses, wage cuts, social spending cuts and unbridled corruption have been the theme of 2020 even before the Covid-19 pandemic fully hit. South Africa entered a third year of recession. But the question is: what next? What will a one-day protest action achieve? Where does this leave the masses, the working class who produce the goods/services holding up the world economy?
In South Africa the material living conditions of the working class, and unemployed class have been steadily decreasing over the past decade. Although trade unions have won small victories with minor salary increases here and there, these barely keep up with inflation, while general living costs rise.
The working class and other oppressed layers of South African society have not only suffered at the hands of economic violence, but physical too. Mine workers were massacred at the Lonmin mine in Marikana in 2012. Students and workers were beaten, shot at and persecuted during Fees Must Fall protests in 2015-2017. All this while the war on the poor and homeless continues, with unlawful evictions through physical force.
Capitalism has reached a blind alley. There is no future for the workers and the poor under it. The system’s ability to improve the living conditions of people through the creation of new industry and innovation has failed, and now we are left with a surplus of goods but no one who can afford to buy them.
Cosatu forms a part of the Alliance with the SACP and ANC. But instead of building a socialist and communist alternative to the capitalist class and their representatives in the alliance, COSATU openly endorsed and supported Cyril Ramaphosa — a big capitalist — to become president of the ANC. Now the chickens have come home to roost. It is therefore no surprise that Ramaphosa, the capitalist, has been at the forefront of the attack on the living standards of the workers. He introduced amendments to the labour law which now put limitations on the right to strike and he introduced a national minimum wage which resulted in putting a downward pressure on wages.
It is time for the unions to break with the bourgeoisie. It is time to end collaboration with the enemy class and their representatives like Ramaphosa. The only way forward is to develop an independent class position and fight for a socialist programme.