South Africa: Thousands of workers march against modern day slavery

“Decent work is a right, labour broking is just like slavery and is causing major problems for the working class... we want the National Executive Committee of the African Nation Congress to sit down and review this.” Irvin Jim, General Secretary of the National Union of Metal workers of South Africa (NUMSA). As hundreds of thousands of worker and the general public were marching under the blistering sun in 32 cities across South Africa, their mood was captured by these words from their leader.

Placards, posters and banners sent out a clear message to even the most ignorant person: Away with labour brokers! Away with e-tolling!

Over 300 000 workers downed tools and took part in the Congress Of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) led protest against electronic road tolls and labour brokers. City centres across the country were awash with bright red and yellow t-shirts as workers sang and danced in a tradition which has characterised protests in South Africa for over five decades. The biggest marches were in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban with over 60,000 marchers in each of these cities.

The strike was strongest in manufacturing with Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, Ford, and General Motors and associated auto part plants all halting production. Gold mining was also affected, with Gold Fields reporting 85% of workers downing tools, Harmony Gold operations also shut down and AngloGold Ashanti management reporting that about half of its operations had been stopped for the day. Coal mining also took a hit with Anglo American reporting a “significant number of strikers”. Retail group Pick and Pay stores reported that up to 70% if its staff had not turned up for work. The strike also affected transport, education, health services, etc.

2012-03-07-general-strike-durbanDurbanIn a country where the poorest 10% of the population shares a mere R1.1 billion while the richest 10% of the population shares R381billion and 79.4% of the population accounts for 41.2% of the household income, whereas 9.2% of the population accounts for 45.3% of the income, it is clear why South Africa has a Gini coefficient that stands at 0.77. COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi described the situation as one of “economic apartheid”.

This unequal distribution of income is further exacerbated by the alarming unemployment rate which currently stands at 35.4%, not to mention the 30% of the casualised workforce, and labour brokers being the main drivers of casualisation of labour. According to the National Association of Bargaining Councils, 979,539 workers are employed by labour brokers, with little or no medical aid benefits at all.

A memorandum which was submitted by COSATU suggests that the Chief Executive Officer of Shoprite, a company which uses labour brokers, Mr Whitey Basson, “earned the highest-ever annual earnings ever recorded in a single year in 2010 – an unbelievable R627.53 million in salary, perks and share options”. This happens amidst unchecked exploitation and casualisation of Shoprite workers.

Radical statements by union leaders

Across major cities where national leaders of COSATU and its affiliates were addressing marchers, workers were motivated by the sudden radical statements against monopoly-capital and its adherents.

“Yes we have political freedom, and many have houses, but white monopoly-capital has benefited the most since 1994. Today there are 45% of our working people living on R10 a day. This is unacceptable. People go to bed hungry while those in power have money to drink the whole night, regardless of our people’s poverty... This is not a narrow issue of e-tolls and labour brokers: this is a class war.” (Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions)

It’s true that the national marches were not only about e-tolls or labour brokers as popular media would want us to believe. If this were the case, a worker from Gcuwa (a rural town in Eastern Cape), an area where road tolls are something which they only see on television, and labour brokers are not even interested to set up shop, would never have found a reason to take part in these marches. For the workers in the periphery of industrialized cities, the march was about the creation of decent jobs and the provision of basic socio-economic services. For a worker in a big city like Johannesburg it was about the total annihilation of monopoly capital, and for the opposition parties who pledged solidarity for the march, it was about canvassing for votes in the run up to general elections which will take place in two years. It must be applauded that COSATU did not afford parties like the liberal Democratic Alliance and the opportunistic Congress of the People, an audience to spew their prejudice against the working class.

The way forward is to step up the struggle

There is an underlying feeling that the ANC was put in power by the workers, but it is not responding to their demands and interests. “Today we are here to remind some fellows where they are coming from. They don't know anymore the power of the working class,” said Vavi.

The one day general strike cannot be seen as an end in itself, but the beginning of a sustained campaign of mobilisation. Labour brokers are a fundamental part of an assault on workers’ rights and conditions. They will not be easily defeated. As a matter of fact Finance Minister Pravin Ghordan has already announced that South Africa needs “structural labour reforms”, and we all know what that means: destruction of workers’ rights and conditions, making it easier for employers to hire and fire at will, etc.

The demands for the delivery of public services, the demand for economic freedom by the African National Congress Youth League, the demand for better wages and working conditions by COSATU and the demand for free education by the South African Students Congress must be integrated into a revolutionary programme to create a socialist South Africa.

Unfortunately, the position of the leadership of the SACP was vacillating over the question of the general strike. While it did finally come out openly in favour of it, they expressed their reservations about the question of e-tolling.

In an article, titled “The local government elections and what they mean for the South African working class” we said that: “This leaves space for the South African Communist Party (SACP) to lead the struggles and coordinate them with the struggles waged by the militant Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). If the Communist Party organized a national campaign linking up all these struggles and giving them an organized expression it would receive a massive echo. This would lay the basis for taking the struggle to a higher level, where the party would patiently explain to the workers that these problems are symptoms of a capitalist system that is not able to take society forward and that true liberation can only be achieved by the workers taking power themselves – that is, through a socialist revolution.”

It is not the lowness of wages and lack of service delivery that forms the fundamental evil; these are but the consequences of the capitalist system itself!

[VIDEOS / PICS] South Africa: COSATU's general strike against labour brokers and road tolls