•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

May Day in South Africa

Democratic elections, strike actions & economic crisis

Published May 13, 2009 12:57 PM

The April 22 national elections in South Africa showed widespread continued political support for the ruling African National Congress. The ANC won close to a two-thirds majority in the elections, securing victories in all the provinces with the exception of the Cape, where the opposition Democratic Alliance won out over the ruling party.

This year’s election was the fourth democratic poll since 1994, when the former racist apartheid system ended after decades of political, labor and armed struggle. The winner of this year’s presidential vote was current ANC President Jacob Zuma. He is the fourth ANC president since 1994, following Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe.

April 22 elections.

The vote comes amid escalating labor unrest in South Africa in response to both the burgeoning global economic crisis and the fact that while the unfolding national democratic revolution has scored monumental advances in the political arena, a more favorable distribution of economic resources has yet to be realized for the African majority of the population.

Zuma told a May Day rally of tens of thousands in East London that the new government will introduce legislation to further guarantee rights for the country’s workers. “We want to introduce laws to regulate contract work, subcontracting and outsourcing,” he said. (AFP, May 1)

These laws, which were included in the election manifesto of the ANC, will outlaw policies that allow abuse of workers as well as “labor brokering.” This involves using contract work to get around existing labor laws. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has called for outlawing “labor brokering.”

“It is a serious matter that while our Constitution talks about the rights of all and the rights of workers, we have workers that worked for decades without any security,” Zuma said at the East London rally. He called upon corporate leaders to develop programs to protect jobs in the current economic climate.

“We reiterate our message to business that they should do everything possible to retain jobs,” Zuma told the East London rally.

Labor struggles & economic crisis

During annual May Day commemorations, workers in South Africa sent a strong message in defense of their class. COSATU organized 36 rallies throughout the country, the largest ones in the Eastern Cape.

Besides Zuma, speakers at May Day rallies included South African Communist Party General Secretary Blade Nzimande and COSATU President Sidumo Dlamini.

At an earlier media briefing in Johannesburg, COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi had said, “This is the worst economic environment which we celebrate Workers Day under. ... We want a very active president who is preoccupied with South Africa’s survival in this economic crisis.” (The Times of South Africa, April 30)

The Federation of Unions of South Africa and the National Council of Trade Unions, under the banner of another umbrella group, the South African Confederation of Trade Unions, selected the theme “Fighting for decent work through workers’ unity.” The general secretary of the National Council, Manene Samela, called for a focus by the Unemployment Insurance Fund on worker retraining of the unemployed.

The general secretary of the Federation of Unions of South Africa, Dennis George, proclaimed that May Day must focus on the need for legal safeguards for contract labor, subcontracting and outsourcing.

George also emphasized the Federation’s support for the reduction in the usage of labor brokers. “It will mean punishing employers who do not provide decent work by refusing them state  tenders. It is imperative that the government seriously invests in the creation of decent jobs for all,” he said.

Leading up to May Day, a number of strikes have occurred in key industries involving transport, metals, municipal services and public health. In addition, the slow pace of the resolution of some of these strikes has threatened to bring about further work stoppages in broader sectors of the economy.

The South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union held a strike during April that affected the supply of petroleum and food.

On April 29, Dumisani Langa, a spokesperson for striking Metrobus workers, addressed 800 workers picketing the company’s offices in Braamfontein, a suburb of Johannesburg. They went on strike to demand higher pay and the suspension of a manager. “We will strike until our demands are met. Metrobus did ask us to suspend it, but we cannot just suspend the strike without an offer.”

A physicians’ strike had a notable impact on the country’s health care system. According to the Digital Journal, “Countrywide, some 26 public hospitals, located in areas which house tens of millions of the country’s most destitute and vulnerable people, are the hardest-hit by the doctors’ strike, including at the world’s largest hospital in Soweto, Baragwanath.”

The majority of the doctors involved in the strike were junior physicians and interns who earn approximately $700 per month in take-home salary. On April 29 it was reported in both the Star and Independent Online that the strike had ended with an agreement between the South African Medical Association, the Doctors’ Forum and the provincial authorities. The physicians had been threatened with dismissal if they did not return to work.

At the same time doctors in KwaZulu Natal (KZN) province threatened to strike over poor conditions for doctors as well as patients.

Sex workers attended the May Day rallies as part of their campaign for decent working conditions, fair labor practices and an end to arbitrary arrests. COSATU Western Cape provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich said, “It’s not our place to make a moral judgment on prostitution. It’s a reality in South Africa today. Those workers work under difficult and dangerous conditions, and they need protection just like every other South African.” (Independent Online, May 1)

Over the last year the global economic crisis has severely affected South Africa. Unemployment is rising along with prices for food and transportation services.

Africa’s largest steelmaker, the Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal South Africa Ltd., could close some of its South African operations and permanently cut jobs if prices continue to spiral downward. In opposition to threatened layoffs, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) plans to strike over the next two months. The company has already cut 1,000 contractor jobs in recent weeks.

Despite earlier forecasts by some elements of the corporate media, the ANC has maintained its political dominance in South Africa. In the Cape Province, however, the opposition Democratic Alliance won 51.5 percent of the vote, prompting COSATU to warn against the DA continuing its agenda of “perpetuating white privilege.” The union federation called for the DA to join in a coalition government with other parties in the province and threatened strike action if the African communities were not brought into the government there.

The South African Communist Party issued a statement on April 24 commending the millions of people who came out “to cast their votes in the fourth democratic elections of our country. The outcomes of the votes ... have reaffirmed the overwhelming confidence that our people have in the ANC. The ANC has, amidst all manner of pessimisms, including sustained negative media publicity, emerged with a renewed mandate to work together with our people to transform the South African society for the better. ... The SACP commits itself to deepening the political organization of the working class to play its rightful place as the leading motive force to deepen and consolidate our democracy.” (www.sacp.org.za)

Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire. The writer has followed the political situation in South Africa and throughout the region of the subcontinent for many years.