STATISTICS indicate that about 30% of South Africa’s workers now belong to unions.
Workers in South Africa have many burning issues that include the pressing need for better pay, cheaper transport, adequate benefits such as pension and medical aid, flexi-time and a whole variety of creature comforts that are absent in many workplaces.
And for the first time since democracy in 1994, despondent workers whose only recourse to be heard in the past was through rowdy strike action now have an alternative – the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) – led by one Irvin Jim.
Yes, the same Jim who leads the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the union that was expelled from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in November 2014 for refusing to back the African National Congress (ANC) in the general elections – a move that breached the federation’s rules.
The federation’s membership sharply dropped from 1,923,436 in 2015 to 1,605,973, a 16.5% decline, revealed by a Cosatu organisational report in 2018. Cosatu, the SA Communist Party and the ANC are in a tripartite alliance – a pact that has delivered significant numbers of votes from workers in the past.
Vavi, who had a falling out with his union colleagues over several issues including alleged infidelity and financial misconduct, was kicked out of Cosatu a few months after Numsa was expelled.
Undeterred, the dynamic duo of Jim and Vavi hatched a plan. They would form their own union federation that was not beholden to the ruling elites.
In April 2017, Vavi launched the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu). It now represents 30 unions collectively with just more than half a million members.
Seemingly buoyed by Vavi’s success, Numsa, the biggest metalworkers trade union formed in 1987 which has about 360,000 members, decided to launch its own party to look after the interests of workers.
Commenting on the November launch, last year, Numsa’s spokesperson and member of the SRWP’s interim committee, Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, said: ‘The SRWP is a revolutionary party which will drive a socialist programme for the formation of a Socialist South Africa.
‘Our formation is a result of the historic decision taken by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) special national congress in 2013 to establish the formation of a workers party to champion an agenda for the working class, a social grouping of people who are employed for wages, especially in manual or industrial work.
‘We are a Marxist-Leninist political party fighting to overthrow the brutal capitalist system.’
Surprisingly, Jim’s mate from long-back, Zvelinzima Vavi, famed for his verbosity and Marxist rhetoric while he was Cosatu general secretary, says Saftu does not support the new workers’ party.
Speaking at a Workers’ Day rally in Durban on May 1st, Saftu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said the trade union federation does not support the new SRWP because the federation has not had a chance to discuss the issue yet.
Statistics indicate that about 30% of South Africa’s workers belong to unions. It remains to be seen if the country’s struggling workers will throw their lot in with Jim said Vavi.
- SOUTH Africa is set to elect new national and provincial leaders in elections due this Wednesday.
And a spokesperson for Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions) has insisted that the nation has ‘much to celebrate in terms of workers’ rights’ since the 1994 elections. Sizwe Pamla added that Cosatu ‘would continue to encourage South Africans to vote in the general elections for the ANC’.
‘The ANC has done a lot for the workers,’ said Pamla. ‘The problems that there are will be fixed by us as workers.
‘Workers dismantled a corrupt and undemocratic systems, they can fix the problems and weaknesses of a democratic regime.’
And Pamla went on to say that workers had ‘gained a lot since 1994, through the Labour Relations Act, the right to bargain collectively and and strike where necessary, and through the newly-introduced new minimum wage.
‘We are in the process of adopting National Health Insurance that will transform the healthcare in this country. We participate in policy and legislative formulation through National Economic Development and Labour Council and other platforms,’ Pamla continued.
‘But various other matters are still on the table. Since the last election, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) lost the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa as an affiliate union.
‘South Africa saw the rise of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, and the country has seen a new workers’ party and a new labour federation born (the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party).’
He continued: ‘The South Africa Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), formed in 2017 after the exodus of former Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi from the African National Congress affiliated federation, lamented the loss of jobs in South Africa in recent years.
‘Still more job losses are coming, with threatened retrenchments in Eskom, the mines – in particular the coal mines in Mpumalanga, as a result of privatisation of energy and the introduction of Independent Power Producers – the South African Broadcasting Corporation (certainly after the elections), Standard Bank, ABSA, the public service and possibly South African Airways and Edcon and even in the civil service,’ the federation said in a statement published on its website ahead of the elections.’
However, as Solidarity general secretary Gideon du Plessis had also been quoted as saying: ‘Workplace democracy did not keep track with political democracy, since 1994.
‘A political party that received less than 1% support at the polls, can still represent its constituency in Parliament.
‘But, at the workplace, a majority union and an employer can apply the undemocratic majoritarian principle and enter into an agreement that prevent any other trade union to represent its members at a specific workplace, Du Plessis had said.
‘Du Plessis said these imbalances did not excuse South Africans from voting,’ saying: ‘If you are eligible to vote, but you don’t go and vote on May 8, then you don’t qualify to express a political opinion after the elections.’
He said too that Solidarity ‘hoped that the new administration would amend the Labour Relations Act to abolish its “undemocratic principle”.’
- Meanwhile, in Durban striking eThekwini municipality workers had gathered to discuss the options available to them on Friday, after several protesters were arrested in the Durban city centre on Thursday.
Police fired rubber bullets on Thursday evening to disperse several municipal employees who had gathered outside city hall during the day. Union members told the Daily News that at least 30 people were arrested on Thursday but this could not be independently verified on Friday morning.
A week-long protest by the eThekwini water department, eThekwini electricity, eThekwini roads and the Durban Solid Waste has prompted the city management to take legal action against striking staff.
The municipality refuses to explain how the salaries of 55 Umkhonto we Sizwe military veterans more than doubled in a year, saying that the matter was being investigated.
But the striking staff are demanding an equal pay package. So the city has decided to take the grievances of workers who want to be elevated from grade 4 to grade 10 to the central bargaining council to deliberate on the matter and make a ruling.
And discussions at the bargaining council are expected to be concluded in 30 days. However, eThekwini Municipality Mayor, Zandile Gumede, said the protests were illegal and welcomed a court interdict against the illegal strike.