On World Day For Decent Work, trade union federations in South Africa declared a national strike against the winds of austerity blowing out the national treasury.
Workers across trade union federations marched against austerity measures, poor working and living conditions and corruption in different cities and towns on Wednesday. Putting forward a raft of demands that range from workplace to societal issues that affect workers and the poor the most, the three federations showed the power of unity as they demanded a better and more equal South Africa.
In Cape Town
About 400 members of mainly Cosatu, Saftu and Fedusa affiliates marched to the City of Cape Town, the provincial legislature and to parliament or proceeded in a motorcade in adherence with covid-19 regulations. Handing over the memorandum to the Deputy Minister of Justice, John Jeffreys, Cosatu’s national Treasurer, Freda Oosthuysen, said that the government has 14 days to respond to their demands.
“The wage freeze in the public sector is a sore point; it’s going to be a battle. But we don’t have wage freeze only in the public sector, but in the private sector, it is the same scenario. The public sector took the initiative to say that there won’t be salary increases for the next 4 years,” said Oosthuysen.
The issue of the wage freeze in the pubic sector is now before the Labour Court as the government is opposing the bid by the unions to honour a public service wage bill. In April, the government reneged on an agreement to raise the salaries of 1.2-million public servants saying that it would cost the country R37.8-billion.
Saftu Western Cape Deputy Chairperson, Nyaniso Siyana, said that the march on Wednesday is just the start of a campaign against the wage freeze in the public sector and other attacks on labour. The federation is promising rolling mass action with a shutdown on the 2nd of December. “There can’t be a point where we reach an agreement in the collective bargaining [council] and not want to comply with that. We will have rolling mass action to force this government to pay what is due to the workers,” he said.
Commenting on the significance of the strike, both Oosthuysen and Siyana emphasised the importance of worker unity and that both Cosatu and Saftu will try and work together going forward.
“If we are to fight what is confronting us, we have to be united as federations and as workers across federations because our enemy as workers in South Africa is a capitalist class with [a] bourgeois elite that sits in this parliament,” said Siyana.
Public servants who participated in the Cosatu march to the offices of Eastern Cape Premier, Oscar Mabuyane, in Bhisho in the Eastern Cape, expressed anger and disappointment when they found him absent from the office at the time when over 500 marchers converged at his door in loud protest.
They warned that they will take more action if he fails to respond to their demands within seven days.
The placard-waving Cosatu members, who were supported by Saftu, hailed from the Amathole and the Buffalo City metropolitan municipalities as part of the countrywide strike action by labour unions against the scourge of corruption. The apparent looting of the R500-billion fund meant for the covid-19 disaster was repeated denounced.
Zodwa Gqirhana, Cosatu’s Eastern Cape deputy chairperson, grumbled that corruption resulted in government’s failure to provide adequate PPE to frontline staff during the peak of coronavirus infections. The government, therefore, is responsible for the deaths of numerous healthcare workers.
Chanting struggles songs and slogans, the workers from various sectors painted Johannesburg red, crisscrossing the city centre from the Minerals Council, to Johannesburg Park Station, to Cell C offices and the Gauteng premier’s office where they delivered respective memorandums of grievances. Chief among their demands was for the government to honour the public sector wage agreement. Reneging on the agreement “would be the worst betrayal of collective bargaining”. They appealed to Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, and Public Service and Administration minister, Senzo Mchunu, to honour the long-standing agreement.
On the proposed freezing of wages, Saftu’s Stephen Faulkner said they are expecting government to argue in court that it cannot afford to give public sector workers an increase because it would bankrupt the country. “We are ready to fight this as the current precarious conditions government finds itself in cannot be blamed on the workers but on the same government due to its bad management and poor implementation of policies.”
“This is the declaration of war. We are immensely provoked,” said Saftu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. Amos Moyela, Cosatu Gauteng Chairperson, said they are ready to challenge government in court as the agreement was signed between all parties and the government cannot backtrack now. “This shows the country’s future is in bad hands and those hands are stealing money meant to improve the lives of workers. No money for the increase but plenty for looting,” he said.
Moyela added that the strike action was an historic moment where union leaders from both Saftu and Cosatu decided to put their differences aside and advance the plight and the interests of workers. “No other class will emancipate workers than the working class. Cosatu is Saftu and Saftu is Cosatu. You’ll remember the founding principle of Cosatu that says ‘One Union, One Country, One Industry, One Federation.”
Elsewhere, in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, the Information, Communication and Technology Union (ICTU), which is affiliated to Saftu, demonstrated at the head offices of Cell C in Woodmead against the looming retrenchment of 1,600 workers. “This is more than half of the current workforce in the company. We can’t allow this to happen. We are going to court to challenge this. This company refused to show us their financial statements and convince us of the rationale behind this unfortunate decision. That clearly showed section 189 was not followed properly,” said ICTU President, Moeketsi Lepheyane.
“Let us remind the ANC government that we are the ones who put them in power and we will remove them. We’ve got alternatives and in time, very soon, we’ll show them that we’ve got an alternative,” charged Zola Saphetha, General Secretary of Nehawu.
Receiving the memorandum on behalf of the Gauteng Premier and the government, Jacob Mamabolo, MEC of Transport and acting Health MEC, assured workers that he’ll convey their demands to both the premier and the president of the country.