New South African Trade Union Federation formed!

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THE LEADERS of a new trade union federation as an alternative to the Congress for South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have targeted the last weekend of March next year for its official launch.

Four names – the South African Council of Trade Unions (SACTU), Progressive Workers’ Federation of SA (PROWFESA), Democratic and Independent Trade Unions of SA (DITUSA) and the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) – have been shortlisted as possible names for the new federation.

Ex-COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and other founding leaders of the new federation like National Union of Metalworkers of SA (NUMSA) general secretary Irvin Jim, his Food Allied Workers Union (FAWU) counterpart Katishi Masemola and the South African Liberated Public Sector Workers’ Union (SALIPSWU) leader Thobile Ntola have been hard at work trying to ensure the federation becomes a reality.

Already 38 unions have pledged their allegiance to the new federation – but this is still too low compared with the 186 registered trade unions in the country, Vavi has said. In a statement last week, Vavi said the steering committee tasked with establishing the federation had resolved to launch its website last Thursday.

Its Facebook and Twitter accounts meant to drum up support are already operational, he said. The federation had initially been planned to be launched between March 17 and 19 next year – but because of the non-availability of a venue, it was pushed to March 25 to 27.

Vavi said: ‘When we started this journey to build a new independent, democratic and campaigning federation, we knew the road ahead would be a hard one. We knew that those who feared our success would try to belittle our efforts, but we are not in any way concerned.’

He added that the proposed national minimum wage of R3,500 a month was an insult to the ‘victims of slave wages, poverty, unemployment and inequality’. He insisted: ‘We will not accept a figure that is far removed from the minimum living levels which today stands at R5,544.56.’

Meanwhile NUMSA has raised safety concerns at ArcelorMittal South Africa in Vanderbijlpark, south of Johannesburg. It said steelworkers there are demanding that the company takes the health and safety of their employees seriously. This follows an accident in October in which a worker lost three fingers at the Vanderbijlpark plant and another accident when a worker fell from a roof and was fatally injured.

NUMSA said on Friday that it was demanding that three managers responsible for health and safety at the plant be suspended. In a statement, NUMSA also demanded that the Department of Labour appoint qualified inspectors to carry out a thorough investigation into health and safety standards within the company.

The steel workers’ union said it was convinced that the company did not take health and safety seriously and was more concerned with maintaining and increasing production. NUMSA general secretary Irvin Jim said they were also angry at the number of times management had victimised and charged the shop stewards who raised complaints from workers.

He said: ‘On 2 December the dispute was taken for conciliation at the Metal and Engineering Bargaining Council and although the Commissioner tried to conciliate, the employer arrogantly looked for excuses. These included the union missing the 30-day deadline for conciliation in terms of Section 135 of the Labour Relations Act, even though this happened because the company had promised to investigate the accidents but failed to do so in time for the union to meet the deadline.’

Jim added that NUMSA had asked to meet the Commission on Monday to discuss its demands, failing which the union would proceed to issue a notice for a strike. Last year, ArcelorMittal undertook an industrial footprint review and rationalisation of Vanderbijlpark Works and a review of Corporate Service departments.

• South Africa students have been speaking out about their FeesMustFall protests that have been met with state violence carried out by police and private security guards hired by universities. Thanduxolo Mngqawa, is a student activist and founding member of Inkululeko in Mind, a youth-empowerment organisation based in the Khayelitsha township of Cape Town.

Mngqawa, who was himself injured by police during the recent protests, said: ‘The students are clear about what they want (free university education), but the state has come back with last year’s strategy: militarising the campus. Policy surrounding the police response to protest needs to change.’

Shaeera Kalla, is the former Student Representative Council president of the University of Witswatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg and one of the leaders of the #FeesMustFall movement. She said that despite being shot in the back 13 times with rubber bullets by the SAPS during a protest on 20 October, she does not view the police or private security guards as the enemy.

Kalla stressed: ‘Our struggle is a working class struggle. The black men and women who are working in the SAPS and for these private security companies are victims of a violent system that wants to trap the poor into a fight for the crumbs at the table of the privileged. They too are subject to the humiliation and indignity of this system. We are fighting for them and their children to also walk through the open doors of learning.’

Political analyst and former Wits lecturer Ayesha Kajee said that despite the resistance to the students’ demands, the call for fee-free university education is not an impossible one. He said: ‘A key requirement would be the political will to make the necessary changes to the tax and budget policy systems, and a paradigm shift in the allocation and monitoring of state expenditure overall. Currently, the levels of mismanagement and corruption within the state are near-kleptocratic.’

Kajee is part of an informal discussion forum of students, academics, staff and concerned members of the public called October 6, who discuss and take action against violence on South Africa’s university campuses.

On 6 November 2016, UCT signed an agreement with student leaders, granting clemency to protesters and a commitment to decolonise education policies, as long as student leaders cooperate and commit to completion of the academic year. Student leaders like Kalla are sceptical but willing to engage.

She commented: ‘We cannot move forward on our own. Part of getting society behind us means that we stop fighting our universities and direct the fight to where it belongs – towards the government.’

UCT vice-president Max Price says grants and loans are the fee answer. In a presentation to the fees commission in November, he said: ‘In an ideal world, if South Africa were a rich country with little inequality and was already providing sufficient state funding to support socioeconomic rights such as universal fee-free quality primary and secondary schooling, universal access to early childhood development centres, health care, social welfare support for all elderly and unemployed, I would support a system of no-fee higher education.

‘A medium-term plan for the next 30 years, however, will have to fit a different context in which fee-free higher education cannot claim to be the highest priority. I therefore argue that, for the foreseeable future, higher education has two main sources of funding — government grants and tuition fees.

‘Cofunding is not intended to diminish the imperative for increased government funding. Subsidy should be increased, ideally to about 1% of gross domestic product to reflect the public good that derives from higher education.’

The ANC government has responded to the recent protests with an interim report into the feasibility of fee-free higher education and training in South Africa. On 3 November, President Zuma issued a delaying commitment to ‘study the interim report and give direction on the way forward’ by 30 June 2017.

Until then, commentators say fees are likely to increase by 8% in 2017, with government subsidising financially vulnerable students so that they can continue paying 2015 rates.