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,”
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
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
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
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