HUNDREDS of thousands of workers across South Africa downed tools on Wednesday, February 24, as a part of a general strike called by the left wing South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU).
With 21 affiliated unions, SAFTU represents a total of 800,000 workers in the country.
Demonstrations were held in major cities as most participants in the strike that begin at 9am, stayed at home and did not report to work.
The largest of the demonstrations was in the country’s legislative capital city, Cape Town where marched to the parliament where finance minister Tito Mboweni was delivering his budget speech.
South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi led a demonstration in Pretoria.
The general strike was called on Wednesday to highlight the fact that the severe economic crisis faced by the working class is a direct result of the ANC government’s economic policies.
Speaking ahead of the strike, Vavi said: ‘Unemployment has worsened from 30% to 32%. Public servants did not receive an increase last year.
‘They will not receive one for the next four years, but they will be expected to cope with the increase in petrol and food prices.
‘Clearly, somebody has got to stand up and say enough is enough. We cannot go on like this. When we speak of a 32% unemployment rate we are talking about people here, not just statistics. These are families.’
He said the same nurses and doctors Premier David Makhura had thanked for saving his (Vavi’s) life when he contracted Covid-19 were expected to keep risking their lives while their living earnings continued to shrink.
SAFTU has pointed out that only by forcing a radical reversal in policy can the workers salvage their future.
It has raised the demand for nationalisation of all strategic monopoly industries, banks and mining houses to be placed under democratic workers’ and community control and management, and the reorganisation of ‘all economic life based on a democratically-planned economy’.
SAFTU’s statement announcing the general strike said: ‘Capitalism fails the working class and the poor, not by default, but by design.
‘It flourishes when there is a reserve army of unemployed labour, when there is discord and disunity among the working class and the poor, and the state takes the capital’s side to increase exploitation and undermine civil liberties.’
The union pointed out that taking undue advantage of the pandemic, the employers in private and state-owned industries have resorted to mass retrenchments, many of which were planned months before the new Covid-19 strain was even discovered.
About 2.2 million jobs were lost during the pandemic and the total number of people categorised as ‘economically inactive’ has exceeded 5 million.
Existing jobs are becoming increasingly precarious because of outsourcing and zero-hours contracts.
SAFTU added in its statement: ‘As workers struggle against these attacks, their chief defensive weapon, the trade unions, are under attack from bosses, using laws passed recently by the ANC government which make it almost impossible for workers to exercise their constitutional right to strike and to picket.’
SAFTU is demanding a repeal of the ‘pro-capitalist amendments to strike balloting and picketing rules’.
It calls for a moratorium on all job losses, a ‘Basic Income Grant of R1,500’ and a living minimum wage of at least R12,500 ($854), are among the immediate demands to arrest the further deepening of the livelihood crisis and to provide a minimal cushion for the masses who have already lost their livelihoods.
SAFTU has demanded that the wages, bonuses and other benefits of the bosses must be cut and a wealth tax of 50% must be reimposed, as a part of measures to raise the finances needed for the economic revival.
The narrative that ‘we are all in this together,’ which the elite tried to popularise during the pandemic, is bogus, insisted SAFTU’s general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, at a press briefing last week.
Rather than bringing the cross-section of South Africans together, he said, the ‘pandemic divided us further in what is already the world’s most unequal country. Rich capitalists have gotten richer while the working class is now much poorer. It is time to fight back. We must take the battle for our jobs, livelihoods and democratic rights to the streets.’
While demanding the urgent development of a ‘Green New Deal’ to rapidly reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and methane gas, SAFTU has emphasised the need for a ‘just transition with mass job creation, protecting the interests of workers in the energy, mining, smelting, automotive and related industries, in CO2/methane-intensive agriculture, in tourism, and in working-class communities that had become dependent upon the high-carbon economy.’
The renewable energy sector, it added, ‘should not be privatised but placed under the ownership, control and management of the working class and communities, while preserving and creating jobs.’
SAFTU said that the government, on the other hand, has been using the climate crisis as an opportunity to shed jobs in state-owned industries and privatise the energy producers like Eskom.
Irvin Jim, the general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the country’s single largest union with a membership of around 400,000, said: ‘Two thousand jobs have been cut from Eskom, and if (the) government gets its way, and closes down power stations, then we can expect at least 120,000 jobs to be lost from that process.
‘This is because there are many companies along the value chain which depend on the existence of (these) power stations.’
Irvin Jim’s statement, extending support to SAFTU’s call for general strike warned that the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers (REIPPs), to which the energy sector is allegedly being transferred, ‘are completely controlled and the technology is owned by foreign capital.
‘The addition of REIPPs to the grid makes electricity more costly and this will only worsen over time. The working class already cannot afford electricity and by privatising it, it will mean that even more people will be denied access.
‘The working class demands and deserves to own and participate in this sector.’
NUMSA spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola and her counterpart from the National Union of Public Service Workers, Kagiso Mokoe, also endorsed the general strike.
Mokoe said: ‘We have now reached a point where we can’t tolerate the government’s attitude towards our members and workers in general.
‘The government reneged on the third leg of a wage agreement with the public servants, freezing wages on the argument that the increase was not affordable. As we know, the public sector is understaffed when you compare it with the country’s population.
‘No employer may victimise or penalise any worker who chooses to participate in the strike whether those workers are members of a union or not.
‘Every worker who decides to join in the strike has legal protection.
‘We have also noted that Eskom is expected to increase its prices by over 15% for the 2021/22 financial year despite its incompetence to provide reliable power to South African citizens. This is a massive obstacle to investment, economic growth and job creation.
‘The increase is a further blow to cash-strapped South Africans, without ignoring that Eskom is over R400 billion in debt and is owed R31.5bn in overdue debt by several municipalities.
‘We are paying for years of mismanagement of a bloated and wasteful operation.’
Hlubi-Majola said: ‘The attack on the working class has intensified, particularly since the Covid-19 virus arrived.
‘The virus has exposed the brutality of the racist capitalist system in our country. The black and African working class are feeling the full brunt of this virus while the wealthy capitalist elite has barely suffered.’
Hlubi-Majola added: ‘Companies like Macsteel tried to change the conditions of employment by hiding behind the virus. SAA and Comair have done the same.
‘They have drastically reduced staff and are paying workers even less than what they were earning before.
‘Putco retrenched 214 workers unnecessarily when it was clear the problem was rampant mismanagement, but the virus was a convenient excuse for the job cuts.’
A number of other demands raised by SAFTU, such as community healthcare and public housing, a prohibition on evictions from farms, rented houses or ghettos built on occupied land etc, transcend the sectoral concerns of the workers organised under unions.
They address the concerns of the casual workers and the ‘self-employed’ ailing in the unorganised sector of the economy.
A statement by General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA), extending support to the general strike, said: ‘The demands of the strike expresses the general demands of the working class.
‘GIWUSA echoes SAFTU’s call in extending an unambiguous invitation to join this general strike to working class communities who are also reeling from the economic crises imposed upon them.
‘Our enemy is one and requires working class unity in action at every given opportunity.’